Kansas sends a message that many “no-exceptions extremists” are in political peril, which is very good news for Democrats
In 2004, Thomas Frank wrote a memorable book entitled What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Since Tuesday, the political world has been obsessed with whether conservatives might be losing that heart on abortion. The new question is: What’s the message of Kansas?
Anti-abortion zealots in Kansas — i.e. the state Republican Party — had tried to grease the skids for a referendum on amending the state constitution to allow an abortion ban. They scheduled it on a summer primary day where turnout is usually very light and dominated by their ardent base voters. They intentionally made the language of the referendum confusing.
It didn’t work. Turnout was double the rosiest predictions and comparable to a presidential election. Nobody was fooled by the language. And in a state that Donald Trump carried by 15 points in 2020, an astonishing 59 percent of voters struck a blow for reproductive rights. The outcome set off a “Choice Quake” whose national aftershocks are just beginning to be felt.
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Tuesday’s results shouldn’t be over-read — voting for a pro-choice referendum isn’t the same as backing a pro-choice candidate — but they do suggest strong new political winds that could blow open the midterms and bring us a genuine historical anomaly — the victory of a party whose president remains deeply unpopular.
Only twice in the last 100 years has the party controlling the White House won the first midterms of a president’s term. It happened in 1934, when Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal were so popular that Democrats romped, and not again until 2002, when George W. Bush enjoyed a 53 percent approval rating in the aftermath of 9/11.
On the surface, 2022 would seem an unlikely candidate for a third anomaly. Joe Biden’s latest approval rating is 38 percent, the lowest of any president approaching a midterm election in the modern era. Even as prices at the pump dropped in recent weeks, overall inflation remains at a 40-year-high, with a recession expected soon. While Biden has been posting some historic achievements of late (and the pending Inflation Reduction Act will force Republicans to say what they would do about the problem), nearly 75 percent of the president’s own party doesn’t want him as the Democratic nominee in 2024.
But thanks to the Dobbs decision reversing Roe vs. Wade, 2022 could turn out to be a unique, even historic, midterm election. Even before the August 2 primaries, there were signs in polling that views of Biden had decoupled from views of the parties and their congressional candidates, as Simon Rosenberg explained to me last week.
All the stories about the “headwinds” facing Democrats depended heavily on what just a couple of months ago was an enthusiasm gap between the parties that favored eager Republicans. The heavy Kansas turnout now suggests a gap that favors Democrats. And that doesn’t even account for independents. Nearly one fifth of Kansas voters were neither Republicans nor Democrats but “unaffiliated”—and they voted overwhelmingly to protect abortion rights.
These are the fabled independent voters who are hard to poll (witness how pollsters miscalled Kansas) but — when they bother to vote — hold the balance of power in American elections. On reproductive rights, they’re what might be called Roe voters — opposed to abortion on demand and comfortable with Roe’s viability standard (capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb). To reach them, Kansas’ savvy pro-choice advocates skipped the smug virtue signaling that so often characterizes communications on the subject. In some ads, they avoided use of the word “abortion” entirely in favor of opposition to a “strict government mandate” and allowing doctors to “do no harm.”
I was especially interested in the rural Kansas counties where Democrats always get smoked. In Jefferson County, for instance, Trump beat Biden 64-32 in 2020. On Tuesday, the “No” vote (for abortion rights) won there, 55-45. That’s more than a 20-point turnaround. These folks haven’t become Democrats overnight, but they are open to a message that stresses personal freedom and pushback against extremist politicians who want to ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest. This represents a potentially monumental political breakthrough. Democrats this fall don’t have to win rural counties outright, just lose them less badly, so their dominance in cities and many suburban areas can carry the day.
Choice alone won’t win the midterms; many voters will be more concerned about other issues. But a ballot initiative in California (where abortion rights are already secure) might bring out enough new voters to tip four Republican seats to the Democrats. And ads identifying “No-Exceptions Extremists” are likely to be powerful weapons, especially against Republican candidates who have not yet been defined.
Take Tudor Dixon, who just won the GOP nomination for governor of Michigan and will square off against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Within 48-hours of the primary, Democrats had this ad up:
The worst part of that ad for Dixon is when the conservative interviewer brings up the case of the 14-year-old raped by her uncle. Like the story of the 10-year old Ohio girl forced to go to Indiana, where her doctor was harassed by the attorney general, this drives home the way real lives are being shattered. It’s not just that nearly 70 percent of Michiganders reject the “no exceptions” position; it’s that these stories are no longer hypotheticals, as they were before the Dobbs decision. That makes them political dynamite.
Here’s a partial list of Republican candidates for the Senate who are also locked into their “no exceptions” position:
Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida. His 2016 challenger tried to dent him on abortion, but that was pre-Dobbs. Now Rep. Val Demings has a potent issue and is within the margin of error in polls.
J. D. Vance in Ohio. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) is also within the margin of error in his campaign, thanks to his blistering attacks on Vance as an out-of-touch hypocrite. Now he has abortion, too. If Democrats pick up that seat in red Ohio, it’s the end of Mitch McConnell’s dream of being Senate majority leader.
Blake Masters in Arizona. Masters, a terrifying young authoritarian, backs a national abortion ban. Incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) will also likely go after Masters for his opposition to the Griswald decision, which legalized contraceptives. Kari Lake, the nasty Big Lie GOP candidate for governor, is locked into her “no exceptions” position, which should hurt her in her campaign against Katie Hobbs. The personal freedom argument could be particularly relevant in Arizona, where legendary Senator Barry Goldwater was famously pro-choice.
Herschel Walker in Georgia. Walker, a deranged candidate, has a host of problems in his race against Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA). A new one is his recent doubling down as a no-exceptions extremist. (Now that I’ve used my new expression a few times, I can take off the quote marks!) Stacey Abrams trails Gov. Brian Kemp but hopes, post-Kansas, to make his recent signing of a draconian anti-abortion bill into a top tier issue.
Adam Laxalt in Nevada. Laxalt isn’t locked in on no-exceptions but he did support reversing Roe. His opponent, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), is making that a top issue in a state that is nearly 70 percent pro-choice.
Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas. Winning Texas is, of course, the holy grail for Democrats. It’s one of the most anti-abortion states, but Trump won there in 2020 by only five points. Beto O’Rourke is doing surprisingly well against Abbott, who signed a bill banning abortion after six weeks. Abbott has wrongly said that’s enough time for victims of rape and incest to obtain abortions, but this is false. If the sleeping giant that awoke in Kansas does the same in Texas, American politics will never be the same.
Only now are Democrats figuring out which Republican House members and challengers are on record supporting a national abortion ban and oppose it even in cases of rape and incest. Those on the unpopular side of this issue won’t necessarily lose their seats over it, but they will be thrust on the defensive — forced to answer questions about ten-year-old rape victims.
An even bigger battle may be brewing on the state level, where — pre-Dobbs — extremist Republican state legislators and senators never worried that their opposition to all abortions could conceivably hurt them politically.
That has changed now for large numbers of them, thanks to the good people of Kansas.