I agree entirely with Ed that pro-choicers are overinterpreting the results of last night’s ballot referendum in Kansas. It’s not a gamechanger for the midterms, for the simple reason that midterm votes are never single-issue. Especially at a moment when Americans are burdened by high inflation, high gas prices, and that R-word that we’re not supposed to say.
But let’s also be careful about underinterpreting the results. Just because the outcome in Kansas won’t save the House for Democrats doesn’t mean it won’t cause trouble for Republicans, particularly in tight races. If you had asked me six months ago how a referendum on abortion in a Trump +15 state would play, the answer wouldn’t have been “Pro-choice by 17 points.”
Today I’m wondering if the GOP lucked out somewhat on the timing of the Dobbs decision. Until last night, the fact that the ruling dropped in June 2022 was supposed to be a boon to Democrats, galvanizing their voters shortly before the midterms. And that’s true, to a point. But the fact that Dobbs landed just four months before Election Day also left Dems no time to try to organize similar turnout-driving ballot referendums in other states. If the ruling had been handed down last year, for instance, Republicans might be facing abortion ballot questions this fall in Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, on and on. And many a disaffected young liberal who’s planning to otherwise sit out the elections would suddenly be registering to vote.
The GOP will dodge that bullet this year. But not in 2024, especially if they keep pushing no-exceptions bans at the state level.
The dynamics of last night’s election favored the pro-life side. “They scheduled the vote on an August summer Tuesday where mostly only competitive GOP primaries were on the ballot,” Amanda Carpenter noted. “They wrote the language in a vague, hard-to-decipher manner. And, they sent misleading text messages to voters telling them that a vote ‘YES’ would protect ‘reproductive choice’ when, in reality, it would allow the state to ban abortion outright.” The stars were aligned to strip abortion protections out of the state constitution, clearing the way for new restrictions.
Instead, the pro-choice side generated 534,000+ votes and counting, a landslide victory and a stupendous amount by the standards of primary elections. By comparison, Joe Biden got only 570,000 votes in Kansas against Trump two years ago. In the 2014 midterms, the year of a Republican wave, Pat Roberts got just 450,000 votes in the general election en route to a double-digit win. From the Times:
Roughly 940,000 Kansans voted in the referendum, according to preliminary New York Times estimates, compared with about 1.05 million people in the November 2018 midterm election. The gap between turnout in primaries and general elections is usually much larger than that.
Before Tuesday, the Kansas secretary of state’s office predicted turnout of about 36 percent. But as voting ended, Secretary of State Scott Schwab told reporters that anecdotal evidence indicated turnout might hit 50 percent, an extraordinary increase over what was expected. The Times’s 940,000 estimate would mean 49 percent turnout.
Last night’s turnout is what you’d expect for a November gubernatorial election, says the AP, not a sleepy summer primary. In fact:
What also stands out is how "NO" performed better than any recent winning Democratic president in the state.
Just look at these results from Johnson County (Kansas City suburbs) pic.twitter.com/zGj4SQfpBL
— Mark Murray (@mmurraypolitics) August 3, 2022
The takeaway here isn’t that Democrats turned out in droves — although they did:
It doesn't seem like there was a *huge* split in the early v election day vote, as expected, even though Ds were ~50% likelier to turn out in the early vote than Rs. That raises the possibility Ds had the turnout edge on election day as well–and a rare, big edge overall
— Nate Cohn (@Nate_Cohn) August 3, 2022
The takeaway is that, in order to put up the sort of margins that pro-choicers did last night, many Republicans must have crossed over to vote in favor of abortion rights. Some of the county data bears that out:
Kansas abortion referendum:
Trump won Franklin County by nearly 40 points in the 2020 election.
Tonight, with virtually all vote reported, "No" is leading by more than 13 points
— Allan Smith (@akarl_smith) August 3, 2022
"No" is winning Johnson County, Kansas by 72-29 percent with 95% of the vote counted. Biden won it just 53-45, Laura Kelly won it 55-38 percent in 2018.
Methinks this thing is gonna go down.
— Jacob "Inside Elections is hiring" Rubashkin (@JacobRubashkin) August 3, 2022
And while abortion isn’t going to singlehandedly stop the red wave that’s coming, there is some evidence that it might help turnout on the left:
Oh, and perhaps more impressive (and problematic for the GOP): 70% of Kansans who registered to vote after the Dobbs decision was handed down on June 24th are women.
— Tom Bonier (@tbonier) August 3, 2022
See what I mean about Republicans being lucky that Dobbs wasn’t decided sooner? Imagine how that sort of registration effect might upend congressional races in battleground states this November if abortion referendums were on the ballot.
Maybe Kansans will think better of their decision once their home state becomes a regional “abortion magnet” for all of the women in surrounding states who can no longer lawfully end their pregnancies at home. But Ed Whelan’s counsel here is well taken:
One possible lesson from the Kansas shellacking:
Voters facing what they see as a choice between two imperfect options on abortion policy–one too restrictive, one too permissive–will go with the one that is too permissive.
Pro-lifers need to meet the voters where they are.
— Ed Whelan (@EdWhelanEPPC) August 3, 2022
If a Trump +15 state is breaking towards the pro-choice position by 17 points, I’d feel more comfortable being a Republican legislator in a state like Florida that currently has a 15-week abortion ban than being a Republican legislator in a state like Texas where there’s a total ban. And I’d be nervous if my state had enacted, or were about enact, a ban with few or no exceptions. Given the available polling on exceptions, there may not be a state in the country where voters would opt to keep a strict ban in place if given the choice via a ballot referendum. The fact that the backlash won’t keep the House blue this fall doesn’t mean there’s no backlash or that it won’t have consequences at the polls eventually. The GOP should snatch the political space on abortion left by fanatic Democrats and opt for something like a nine-week ban or a “heartbeat law” instead of strict bans that aren’t viable politically. Last night’s result is a warning in that regard.