Opinion |  Meet some of the Kansans who stunned the experts on abortion rights

Opinion | Meet some of the Kansans who stunned the experts on abortion rights

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We should not read too much into Kansas voters’ surprisingly lopsided rejection last week of an amendment that would have declared that the state’s constitution does not guarantee a right to abortion. After all, this is one result in a single state — fewer than 1 million people voted.

But I do think the results in Kansas have an important message for all of America: Even if the country’s elected officials and activists are clearly split into a Team Blue largely unified around one set of views and a Team Red with opposing ones, the nation’s voters are more complicated.

The ballot initiative, which would have cleared the way for Kansas Republicans to pass a near-total ban on abortion, failed because many unaffiliated and Republican voters opposed it. This wasn’t just a story of Democrats outvoting Republicans. Significantly more Kansans are registered Republicans (about 850,000) than Democrats (500,000). And turnout among Democrats (about 57 percent) last week was only slightly higher than for Republicans (55 percent). If the only people who voted on the initiative had been registered Democrats and registered Republicans, and they all voted with their leadership’s position, it would have passed by a 62-38 margin.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, around 170,000 people who did not participate in the partisan primaries voted on the abortion question. (It’s likely most of them are registered as unaffiliated and therefore can’t vote in party primaries.) This outcome — tens of thousands of people in Kansas who won’t join the Democratic Party turning out in august to vote in favor of abortion rights — was far from obvious, and that’s why many political experts, including me, were stunned by the result.

That said, this result didn’t come from nowhere. About 30 percent of American adults are Republicans, about 30 percent Democrats, and around 40 percent independents. Kansas’ electorate is more Republican (44 percent) and less Democratic (26 percent) than the nation overall but also includes a big bloc of unaffiliated voters (29 percent). Some independents are people who don’t follow politics closely and have fairly undefined views. But most consistently vote for one party or the other. And even if they don’t, many have strongly held views on particular issues.

Ruth Marcus: Why I fear Indiana, not Kansas, charts the future of abortion rights in America

One such voter is Tyler Dillman, 32, who lives near Kansas City. “I don’t feel like any party accurately reflects my ideology. I’m ‘conservative’ on topics like immigration, national security, and economics, but more ‘liberal’ on education, gay rights, and health care, and find myself in the middle on many other social issues,” Dillman, who works at a higher-education research firm, told me in an email.

But he felt strongly about taking the pro-abortion rights stand on this ballot measure.

“The Dobbs decision was a watershed moment for me,” Dillman wrote. “Previous attempts to ban abortion, or significantly curtail it, always felt like political posturing, because you knew that there was a solid foundational backstop in the Roe v. Wade decision.”

Tillman is one of eight Republican or unaffiliated Kansas voters who voted for abortion rights whom I reached via email and text message.

Their comments have good and bad news for both parties.

Greg Madison, 69, a retiree in the Kansas City area, told me he used to be a Democrat and often votes for Democratic candidates but, “I changed my registration to unaffiliated as a protest or statement against the two-party system.”

Cynthia Smith, a 63-year-old retired lawyer who lives in Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas, voted for abortion rights as part of her broader disenchantment with the Republican Party.

“Shortly after the January 6 insurrection, my husband and I changed our registration to unaffiliated because we were disgusted with the Republicans in our government, but did not feel the Democratic Party represented us either,” Smith wrote.

Even if all the unaffiliated Kansans who voted last week took the pro-abortion rights stance, the results would have been about 50-50, assuming everyone else voted along party lines. The election results suggested that more than 80,000 Republicans, around a fifth of those who voted in Kansas last week, also took the pro-abortion rights position, leading to the 59-41 blowout for that side. That’s surprising, at least at first glance. I had assumed that registered Republicans who turned out for primaries would be aligned with the party on one of its long-standing core positions.

But that result didn’t come from nowhere, either. Polls have long suggested that from one-fifth to one-third of Republicans support abortion rights, depending on how the question is phrased. These Republicans can rarely express that preference without voting for a Democratic candidate.

And we know that Americans often have views that conflict with their party’s stands. Measures to raise the minimum wage, expand Medicaid and reduce gerrymandering have passed in red states over the past decade, even as GOP leaders oppose all three positions. A 2020 ballot measure to lift a ban on affirmative action failed in heavily Democratic California.

I asked Melissa Clark, a 42-year-old registered Republican who works in sales in the Kansas City area, what restrictions on abortion she would support. “None,” she replied.

“Politicians should not be involved in health-care decisions,” she wrote. “Women and all humans can make their own healthcare decisions. … I think it is a personal decision that is something that should be left in the hands of the individual under all circumstances.”

“Generally Republicans have gotten more of my votes,” said Cheryl Bannon, a 61-year-old retired title closing officer in the Wichita area who is also a Republican. “I am not in favor of large giveaway programs. However the Republicans are just getting too far out there — ‘don’t touch our rights to buy assault rifles in any way but let’s make women and, yes, children carry embryos to term.’”

The good news for Democrats is that all eight I interviewed said they voted for Joe Biden in 2020 and would oppose Donald Trump again in 2024. This is a very small sample, but it fits with lots of evidence that there is a small-but- real bloc of anti-Trump Republicans and that independent voters are really turned off by the former president.

“If it’s between Biden and Trump, I will absolutely vote for Biden. If a moderate Republican were to come into the mix, I may vote for them but I can’t vote for someone who is anti-choice at this point,” said a 26-year-old Kansas City-area Republican named Sydney, who works in financial services and asked that we do not use her last name.

“Can we please have Romney or another Bush?” said Katie Minnis, a 42-year-old Republican who lives in Lawrence and works in corporate sales.

The good news for Republicans is that these voters aren’t likely to become consistent Democratic votes, even as Trump-like figures dominate the GOP.

Stephanie Sharp, a 46-year-old Kansas City-area software manager who described herself as a lifelong Republican, said that she would back Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s reelection bid this fall. But Sharp said she won’t support US Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat who holds a swing seat in the Kansas City area that the party desperately needs to hang on to, casting Davids as “a mediocre and embarrassing representative.”

The biggest lesson from Kansas is one people like me keep forgetting — the voters aren’t nearly as predictable as we think they are.