How Kansas Organizers Beat the Abortion Referendum

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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — When abortion rights organizer Jae Gray sent canvassers to suburban Kansas City for the state’s upcoming referendum, they armed them with talking points aimed at all voters — not just liberals .

“We definitely used messaging strategies that would work regardless of party affiliation,” said Gray, a field organizer for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom. “We believe that every Kansan has the right to make personal health care decisions without excess from the government – ​​this is obviously a pro-conservative talking point. We weren’t just talking to Democrats.

The effort paid off. On Tuesday, Kansas voters decisively rejected an election measure that would have sidelined abortion protections in the state constitution, paving the way for further restrictions or even an outright ban. That victory was fueled by an opposition coalition that mobilized much of the state’s electorate — including Republican and independent voters — to turn out in historic numbers.

The resounding defeat of a well-organized anti-abortion movement in a conservative state surprised many observers and even the organizers themselves, who said they capitalized on voter anger after the Supreme Court overturned. Roe vs. Wade in June. Voter registrations in Kansas rose significantly in the hours after the decision was announced, according to KSVotes.org, an online voter registration service.

Nearly 60% of voters ultimately rejected the amendment, with more than 900,000 people turning out to vote, nearly twice as many as the 473,438 who turned out in the 2018 primary election.

“Kansas participated in historic numbers … because we found common ground among diverse voting blocs and mobilized Kansans across the political spectrum to vote no,” said Rachel Sweet, campaign director for Kansans for Constitutional. Freedom, during a press conference on Wednesday.

Sweet said she hopes the campaign victory will give abortion rights groups a boost in other states with ballot initiatives in the coming months. In California, Vermont and Michigan, voters are being asked whether they should enshrine abortion protections in their constitutions. In Kentucky, voters are debating whether the protections should be rolled back.

Sweet said organizers mobilized Republican and unaffiliated voters through partnerships with groups like Mainstream Coalition, a nonpartisan advocacy group based in Johnson County, Kansas, a populated suburb of Kansas City that has gone blue. for the first time in the 2020 presidential race. About 1 in 5 Republican primary voters voted in favor of abortion rights, according to a Washington Post analysis.

“It is a referendum on the annulment by the Supreme Court Roe vs. Wade and as a society, we don’t want to go backwards with our laws,” said Mandi Hunter, 46, a Johnson County Republican attorney who voted “no” to the amendment. “People don’t want the government to be in charge or to decide their personal lives.”

Hunter said she was skeptical of Republican state lawmakers, who argued the amendment would not necessarily lead to an outright ban, even though some had previously said they were ready with legislation proposing a ban. a total ban on the procedure for their legislative session in January. .

Kansans for Constitutional Freedom also reached out to voters in more rural and conservative areas of the state, Sweet said. An abortion rights rally in western Kansas earlier this week featured horses, a Dolly Parton playlist and T-shirts with a pink womb in a cowboy hat. The slogan? “Vote neighbor.”

Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, 21, a Dodge City resident and event organizer, said the Vote Neighbor campaign was designed as a fun way to reach young, rural voters. They did well, he said. “No” voters won the state’s populated urban counties, but also some smaller rural counties such as Saline and Geary, the results showed.

“These wins are happening because young people are driven and tired of seeing the same thing over and over again,” he said. “When you give us a chance to shape our campaigns, have fun and step away from traditional rhetoric, we will get results.”

Stephen McAllister, a law professor at the University of Kansas, former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who served as United States Attorney for Kansas after being appointed by President Donald Trump, said anti-abortion activism in Kansas had really started in 1991, during Mercy’s summer protests in Wichita. As protesters lay in the streets, chained themselves to fences and were arrested outside abortion clinics, the movement was also recruiting Republican candidates, he said.

Over the next few years, abortion advocates won several victories in the Kansas state legislature, including a 24-hour waiting period, parental notification law, and restrictions on late-term abortions. .

“It was the birth of an interest group that captured the Republican Party in a way that never reflected the view of a majority of Kansans,” McAllister said. “Now that Kansas populism has had a chance to speak out, it is clear that the will of the people has been captured by a single interest in the Republican legislature. There is a disconnect between the will of the majority and the position party.

In 2019, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Kansas Constitution protects the “right to personal autonomy” which “allows a woman to make her own decisions about her body, her health, the formation of her family and her family life — decisions that may include continuing a pregnancy.” Abortion in Kansas is currently legal within the first 22 weeks of pregnancy.

Republicans in the state legislature initially tried to put a constitutional amendment that would undo those protections on the ballot in 2020. When they finally succeeded last year, abortion rights organizers were ready. , according to Cassie Woolworth, 57, president of the Johnson County Democratic Women’s Southern Chapter. His group began warning voters about the upcoming ballot initiative even during last year’s election cycle.

During the year-long campaign on the amendment, both sides accused each other of misinformation – Kansans “Vote No” for constitutional freedom alleging in street signs and messages that the amendment would lead to a total ban on abortion (state legislators had to pass a law prohibiting abortion). The “Vote Yes” Value Them Both coalition alleged that the laws they worked to pass were overturned by the 2019 Supreme Court ruling (which is also not technically true, according to McAllister.)

A misleading text sent by a political action committee headed by Tim Huelskamp, ​​a former Republican congressman from Kansas, further inflamed the race.

The two sides spent roughly the same amount on the airwaves and social media for a combined total of $11 million, according to reports filed with the Kansas Government Ethics Commission. The Catholic Church spent nearly $2.5 million to support Value Them Both, while Planned Parenthood spent $1.4 million to oppose it.

Kansans for Constitutional Freedom was also supported by the Sixteen Thirty Fund, its largest donor, which donated $1.38 million. Sixteen Thirty has emerged in recent years as a powerful hub for leftist causes. Organized as a nonprofit, which means it is exempt from disclosing its donors, the fund spent $410 million across the country in 2020, the last year for which a tax return is available.

The fund, administered by for-profit advisory firm Arabella Advisers, says it champions causes including voter access, pay equity, health care and gun control. In 2020, he was a top donor to outside spending groups formed to defeat Donald Trump. His spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment.

Even as abortion rights advocates popped their champagne at the victory party on Tuesday, the Value Them Both coalition called the result a “temporary setback” in a statement on Twitter, noting that the battle was far from over. The group blamed a “disinformation attack by radical left-wing organizations that have spent millions of dollars out of state spreading lies about the Value Them Both Amendment.”

“Our dedicated fight to empower women and babies is far from over,” the group’s statement read, promising “we’ll be back.”

Scott Clement and Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.

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