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Kansas abortion vote raises warning signs for GOP nationwide in November. Will it eclipse economy?

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The high turnout in the Kansas abortion vote was a warning sign for Republicans in the November midterms who have counted on a flagging economy being the most motivating issue for voters.

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Kansas voters overwhelmingly uphold abortion rights

Voter turnout in Kansas’s primary elections exceeded expectations with voters on both sides of the aisle opting to uphold the right to abortion.

Cody Godwin, USA TODAY

  • Republicans, Democrats and independents voted to protect abortion rights in a state Trump carried
  • The Kansas vote is the first to capture voter sentiment since Roe v. Wade was overturned
  • The economy could be a deciding factor in November, but the Kansas vote shows Roe is a game-changer
  • A few special elections in August will also measure the impact of the Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs

WASHINGTON – Kansas voters turned out in droves Tuesday and shook up the nation’s political landscape when they issued the first ballot response since a Supreme Court decision in June sent the abortion issue back to the states.

One of the most conservative states voted overwhelmingly to protect abortion access that have been threatened across the country since the high court’s landmark decision to overturn Roe v. Wade eliminated the constitutional right it had established nearly five decades earlier.

The primary vote in Kansas, where the robust turnout was more in line with a general election for governor or president, was a litmus test and warning sign for Republicans in the November midterms who have counted on a flagging economy being the most motivating issue for voters.

Decisive outcome: Kansas upholds right to abortion, a blow to anti-abortion movement in first Roe referendum

As Democrats double down on their abortion messaging in midterm races and Republican strategists are retooling, here are the biggest takeaways from the Kansas abortion vote: 

  • What they voted for: Kansans gave a resounding “no” – 59% to 41% – to a ballot question that essentially asked if abortion should be regulated or restricted in a state that currently allows the procedure up to 22 weeks of pregnancy. Voting “yes” would have been in line with pro-life lawmakers and advocates who wanted to overturn a 2019 state Supreme Court ruling and ensure the Kansas constitution no longer protected abortion. 
  • Brisk turnout: Primary turnout in a midterm year usually hovers between 30% and 40% in Kansas. But Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican, said early Tuesday evening that turnout was on track to be 63%, which is more in line with a big presidential race. Voters of all ages and in both parties – including ruby red areas former President Donald Trump carried by double digits – chose to support abortion rights. The turnout was more impressive in a state that doesn’t allow mail-in voting or much early voting. 
  • Caveats: The Kansas result captured voter sentiment for the first time since the Roe decision, but the narrow question that was asked didn’t show the many nuances of the abortion issue across the nation. For example, polling shows the majority of voters think abortion should be legal under certain circumstances not any circumstance, and voters resoundingly want exceptions for rape, incest and health of the mother. The economy will be another big caveat for November – especially if it worsens. 

Court in question: Ruling overturning Roe v. Wade sparks debate about Supreme Court’s legitimacy amid partisan passions

What the Kansas abortion vote means

The Kansas vote is seen as a potential bellwether – the first real indicator of how the issue could factor in the November midterms.

If the turnout in Kansas is replicated across the country, it would benefit Democrats, who have been counting on the Roe reversal to improve their odds this fall. The party is facing headwinds that include high consumer prices, President Joe Biden’s low approval numbers and a historical record that shows midterms typically go against the sitting president’s party.

But the Kansas vote offers the first sign that Democrats could be right about the Roe decision being a game-changer.

Jarrolyn Quinones, a 65-year-old paralegal, was “stunned” by the vote in her home state, she said to USA TODAY late Wednesday morning.

As a Democrat in conservative Kansas, she thought she might be on the losing end of the referendum.

Midterm momentum: Exclusive: Concern about abortion explodes among Democrats, fueling a push to vote

Her polling place in Sedgwick County, where the state’s largest city of Wichita is located, had a lot of posters outside for the pro-life campaign, she said. 

But the results taught her something: the abortion issue cuts through partisan politics. Women who feel the same way as she does about abortion rights might not have signs in their yard or be from the same political party, but they were silently aligned at the ballot box. 

“Women understand their rights are being taken away … and if they don’t act we will be back in the 1950s,” Quinones said. “Regardless if women have different political beliefs or different religious beliefs, they agree they want the right to make their own choices.”

Sedgwick County, where she lives, voted 58% to 42% to protect abortion rights in Kansas. Donald Trump won the county by nearly 12 percentage points over Joe Biden in 2020.

More: Furor over Roe v. Wade reversal likely won’t rescue Democrats in midterm elections: Poll

Many voters there are young enough to have never lived in the U.S. when Roe wasn’t law of the land. 

Quinones is old enough to remember life before Roe and wants to protect it for her family. 

“My life would be entirely different if Roe wasn’t in existence,” she said. “I don’t want to have my granddaughters growing up in a world where they don’t have a choice.”

A deeper look: Chief Justice Roberts wanted to go slow curbing Roe v. Wade. His colleagues were in a hurry.

What’s at stake

The November midterm election will decide which party controls Congress.

Democrats currently have a supermajority, with party leaders controlling the White House and, narrowly, the U.S. House and Senate. 

Political forecasts for nearly a year have indicated Republicans will take back the House and could take back the Senate, which is currently split 50-50. Vice President Kamala Harris, a Democrat, is the tie-breaking vote. 

On Tuesday afternoon, before the Kansas vote, Harris reminded supporters, “We can make a difference in the outcome of the midterms.”

“We are seeing extremist, so-called leaders around the country at a local, state and federal level who are pushing an agenda that is about the restriction of rights instead of what we are supposed to stand for, which is about progress and the expansion of rights,” she said. “We know what we stand for so we know what to fight for.”

If the sentiment and high turnout in Kansas is replicated across the country it could benefit Democrats, who have a voter registration advantage 

A high turnout benefits Democrats in some key battleground states. For example, the Senate race in Pennsylvania between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz could determine which party controls the upper chamber of Congress. 

But the Kansas vote in a reliably red state also indicates Republican women may be motivated to support pro-choice candidates, regardless of political party. 

“This vote makes clear what we know: the majority of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and should have the right to make their own health care decisions,” President Joe Biden said in a statement late Tuesday.

However, the president and his party could still be judged in November by the economy. 

Inflation hit a 40-year high of 9.1% in June, and economic forecasts suggest it will remain high in the fall when voters are going to the polls. 

But political analyst Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, indicated Wednesday afternoon that the Kansas vote was just the beginning of August primaries that could foretell who will benefit in the November midterms.

He pointed to special elections in Minnesota on Aug. 9, Alaska on Aug. 16 and New York on Aug. 23 as races to measure the impact of the Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned Roe.

“Although Kansas sent a loud message, the final margins in upcoming special elections … will be much more instructive of the post-Dobbs environment for the fall,” he said. 

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Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at cwoodall@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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