There were many reasons to expect a close election.
Instead, Tuesday’s resounding victory for abortion-rights advocates in Kansas offered some of the most concrete evidence yet that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has changed the political landscape. The victory, by a 59-41 margin in a Republican stronghold, suggests Democrats will be the energized party on an issue where Republicans have generally had an enthusiastic lead.
The Kansas vote means that about 65 percent of voters nationwide would reject a similar initiative to roll back abortion rights, including in more than 40 of the 50 states (some states on each side are very close to the 50- fifty). This is a rough estimate, based on how demographics predicted the results of recent abortion referendums. But it’s an evidence-based way of coming to a pretty obvious conclusion: If abortion rights win 59 percent support in Kansas, it’s doing even better than that nationwide.
It’s a tally that is in line with recent national polls that showed increased support for legal abortion after the court’s decision. And the high turnout, especially among Democrats, confirms that abortion is not just a key issue of importance to political activists. The stakes in abortion policy have become high enough that it can drive midterm-like high turnout on its own.
None of this proves the issue will help Democrats in the midterms. And there are limits to what can be inferred from the Kansas data. But the lopsided margin makes one thing clear: the political winds are now in favor of abortion-rights supporters.
A surprisingly decisive result
There weren’t a lot of public polls in the run-up to the Kansas election, but the best available data suggested voters would probably be fairly evenly split on abortion.
In a Times compilation of national polls released this spring, 48 percent of Kansas voters said they thought abortion should be mostly legal compared to 47 percent who thought it should be mostly illegal. Similarly, the 2020 Cooperative Elections Study found that the state registered voters were evenly divided on whether abortion should be legal.
Similar recent referendum results in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia also pointed to a close race in Kansas, perhaps even one in which a “no” vote to preserve abortion rights would hold the upper hand.
As with the Kansas vote, a “yes” vote on each of those four states’ initiatives would have amended a state constitution to allow significant restrictions on abortion rights or abortion funding. Unlike Kansas, initiatives passed in all four states, including a 24-point victory in Louisiana in 2020. But support for abortion rights outpaced support for Democratic presidential candidates in relatively white areas in all four states, especially in less religious areas outside the Deep South.
It’s a pattern that suggests abortion rights would have far greater support than Joe Biden did as a candidate in a relatively white state like Kansas, perhaps even enough to favor abortion rights to survive.
It may seem surprising that abortion supporters have a chance in Kansas, given the state’s long tradition of voting Republican. But Kansas is more reliably Republican than conservative. The state has a higher-than-average number of college graduates, a group that has leaned Democratic in recent years.
Kansas voted for Donald J. Trump by about 15 percentage points in 2020, enough to make him a Republican fairly safely. However, it is not entirely out of reach for Democrats. Republicans have learned this the hard way; look no further than the 2018 Democratic victory in the gubernatorial race.
Still, a landslide victory for abortion rights in Kansas did not seem like a likely outcome, either based on recent polls or initiatives. The most likely explanations for the surprise: Voters may be more supportive of abortion rights after Roe’s repeal (as national polls imply); they can be more cautious about removing the right to abortion now that there are real political consequences to these initiatives; Supporters of abortion rights may be more motivated to go to the polls.
Abortion rights advocates may not always find it so easy to advance their cause. They were defending the status quo in Kansas; elsewhere, they will try to overturn abortion bans.
Whatever the explanation, if abortion supporters did as well as they did in Kansas, they would have a good chance of defending abortion rights almost anywhere in the country. The state may not be as conservative as Alabama, but it is far more conservative than the nation as a whole, and the result was not close. There are only seven states, in the Deep South and Mountain West, where abortion-rights advocates would be expected to fail in a hypothetically similar initiative.
A change in participation
If there is any rule about partisan participation in American politics, it is that registered Republicans participate at higher rates than registered Democrats.
While the numbers from Kansas are still preliminary, it appears that registered Democrats were more likely to vote than registered Republicans.
Overall, 276,000 voters turned out in the Democratic primary, which was also held on Tuesday, compared to 451,000 who voted in the Republican primary. The Democratic count was 56 percent of the number of registered Democrats in the state, while the number of Republican primary voters was 53 percent of the number of registered Republicans. (Unaffiliated voters are the second largest group in Kansas.)
In Johnson County, outside Kansas City, 67 percent of registered Democrats turned out, compared to 60 percent of registered Republicans.
This is a rare feat for Democrats in a high turnout election. In nearby Iowa, where historical turnout data is readily accessible, turnout among registered Democrats in a general election has never eclipsed turnout among registered Republicans in at least 40 years.
The higher Democratic turnout helps explain why the result was less favorable than expected for opponents of abortion. And it confirms that Democrats are now much more enthusiastic about the abortion issue, reversing a pattern from recent elections. It may even boost Democrats’ hopes that they can buck the president’s party’s longstanding trend of low turnout in midterm elections.
For Republicans, the turnout numbers may offer a modest silver lining. They could reasonably expect the turnout to be more favorable in the November midterm elections, when abortion is not the only issue on the ballot and Republicans have much more reason to vote, including control of Congress.