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    Words of warning from Kansas to Arizona as abortion rights take center stage

    By Clay Wirestone,


    Dawn Rattan cries and applauds at the Kansans for Constitutional Freedom watch party after Kansans vote to keep abortion a constitutional right on August 2, 2022. (Lily O'Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

    In a world without Roe v. Wade , abortion rights have a way of clobbering long-held political beliefs and assumptions.

    Such was the case in Kansas back in August 2022, when a bipartisan majority of voters decisively rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have allowed lawmakers to outlaw the procedure. And such appears to be the case now in Arizona, where the state supreme court ruled that a law from 1864 prohibits abortion in nearly all cases for residents of the Grand Canyon State.

    Kansas and Arizona are quite different, of course, with the latter state trending purple . Arizona will help decide this year’s presidential election, while Kansas almost certainly won’t.

    But Arizona voters will likely be called on to decide whether the procedure is legal in their state, paralleling the decision that Kansas voters had to make. As someone who watched that campaign from beginning to end, I have a few words of advice and warning for Arizonans and their legislators, who might be trying to make sense of the new political landscape.

    First, Republican legislators are going to want to believe that they can somehow contain or diffuse the issue. Perhaps they send a separate measure to voters . Perhaps they just keep their heads down and wait it out with a dash of extremist rhetoric.

    Fat chance.

    Both parties almost certainly underestimate how important this decision is. I know that sounds unlikely, given national headlines about Arizona’s court-imposed ban. But it’s almost certainly true.

    Kansas voters’ rejection of the abortion amendment in 2022 made national headlines, too. And it still reverberates in the hallways of our Statehouse in confusing ways. Kansas Republicans have continued to pass laws targeting abortion , strongarmed by an anti-abortion lobby that wields considerable influence. The practical effect of these moves has been limited, however, and previous laws have been blocked by the courts.

    Every time Kansas Reflector publishes an article about abortion rights, we are deluged with comments from exasperated readers who ask: Didn’t we vote on this already?

    As Emily Wales, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, put it after Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the latest round of anti-abortion dreck to clear the Legislature: “Kelly’s veto of these anti-abortion bills sends yet another message to lawmakers: in Kansas, we respect the will of voters, who spoke loud and clear they did not want politicians in their personal health care decisions.”

    Signs for and against the state constitutional amendment became a common sight throughout Kansas over summer. Now that the vote is over, we can take a step back. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

    Political lines

    Counterintuitively, however, we’ve seen less political realignment around the issue than you might expect.

    The national press always wants to paint abortion rights as a partisan issue . Republicans are against it, and Democrats are for it.

    The reality is considerably more nuanced. Large numbers of people in both parties are uncomfortable with abortion but don’t believe it should be banned. Smaller numbers of Democrats enthusiastically oppose all restrictions, while a smaller numbers of Republicans enthusiastically support all restrictions.

    As of March, registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats in Kansas by 872,303 to 503,962 . D efeating the amendment meant repudiating partisanship rather than embracing it. Forces opposing the amendment created a permission structure to allow Republicans and conservatives to vote in favor of abortion rights. They emphasized that the proposal would be an assault on personal freedoms and individual liberty.

    “People really want to protect those rights and believe that people ought to be able to make decisions for themselves and their families,” said Ashley All, one of the campaign’s architects, back in 2022 . “That is something that would resonate no matter where you live in the country.”

    You might think that Democrats would jump on such a clear and appealing message with the alacrity of a starving man encountering an all-you-can-eat buffet. Instead, a political party notoriously bad at politics continued to treat reproductive rights as a hot stove that would scar their candidates with the slightest touch.

    This led to an oddly bifurcated campaign season.

    Kansans opposed the amendment by nearly 20 percentage points in August. Yet voters didn’t show up in overwhelming numbers for Democrats in November. Anti-choice Republicans instead kept their supermajorities in our House and Senate. Cue the sad trombone noise for advocates who expected otherwise.

    Those who follow politics closely and understand the way parties ideologically align may see that as nonsensical. However, everyday voters don’t have the same perspective.

    Wait a minute, you say. Does this mean that Arizona will see folks split their ballot between supporting abortion rights and voting for Donald Trump?

    Almost certainly yes.

    U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, right, embraced Kansas Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes at an Aug. 2 primary election watch party in Overland Park. Davids won reelection to a third term Tuesday by defeating Republican Amanda Adkins. (Lily O’Shea Becker for Kansas Reflector)

    Opportunities ahead

    I see two opportunities for abortion-rights forces and Democrats in Arizona.

    A huge one is that the potential voter referendum will be on the November ballot. This means voters showing up to vote on this issue will be selecting state and federal candidates at the same time. That should take care of t he youth turnout problems Kansas saw in November 2022. However, don’t forget those split-ticket voters. They will show up, too.

    The other opportunity is to talk about the issue openly. Kansas Democrats seemed stunned by the overwhelming numbers in support of abortion rights. As mentioned above, few of them made it a centerpiece of their campaigns in the fall. When Kelly — a Democrat who hews as close to the center as possible — ran for reelection, she barely touched the issue .

    The Democrat who did put abortion at the center of her campaign was U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids . Republicans had tried to gerrymander her out of office with new congressional maps that went into effect in 2022. Thanks to her determined campaigning and an emphasis on reproductive freedom, Davids actually improved her winning margin.

    The Kansas amendment vote saw “a broad coalition of people that spoke pretty clearly about these extreme attempts to restrict reproductive health care,” Davids said in a January installment of the Kansas Reflector podcast. “The most effective thing I can do is be clear about my wanting to protect those rights.”

    My final word of advice to our friends in Arizona would be this: Prepare yourself for surprises.

    The lessons that I just shared were not pre-ordained. They’re simply what I observed. As a nation, as regions, as individual states, everyone is coming to terms with the end of Roe v. Wade in their own ways. To use a metaphor, we haven’t endured an earthquake — we’ve instead weathered a succession of temblors in one state after another.

    We know for certain that traditional anti-abortion messaging no longer works . It was easy oppose abortion when the nation enjoyed the backstop of Roe. Without that guarantee, rhetoric has met reality. Politicians who enjoyed easy political benefits of being against a procedure they assumed would never be banned now have to deal with the fact that it has already been banned in more than a dozen states .

    That’s real. That’s not theoretical. That’s not just politics. That’s a clear and present danger to women and their individual freedom, and voters hate it. Kansas anti-abortion advocates learned this the hard way two years ago.

    Arizona anti-abortion advocates are about to learn it as well.

    Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here .

    The post Words of warning from Kansas to Arizona as abortion rights take center stage appeared first on Kansas Reflector .

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