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Kansas Shows the Potential Power of Pro-Choice Republican Voters

All kinds of voters contributed to the pro-choice victory on August 2. Photo: Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

This past week, 59 percent of Kansas primary voters killed a proposed amendment removing abortion rights from the state constitution in the first ballot test on the issue since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. Obviously, this was a big victory for reproductive rights. But this outcome in deep-red Kansas also made a lot of Democrats wonder if abortion politics might be the magic ingredient for a turnout tsunami that would help them counter or even overcome an expected Republican midterm advantage in November.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation of primary voting indicates that it wasn’t just a matter of more Democratic voters turning out. Kansas is a closed primary state in which registered Democrats and Republicans can only vote in their own partisan primaries, and registered independents normally cannot participate at all (though they were allowed to vote solely on the abortion amendment). Steve Kornacki noticed right away that there must have been a lot of non-Democrats voting no:

“At least” is an important distinction here, since you have to assume some Democrats and independents voted yes, which means an even higher percentage of Republicans voted no. But another key thing to note about the numbers is that there was no vast Democratic turnout advantage. My own calculation is that 56 percent of the 496,000 registered Democrats voted in the Democratic primary, while 54 percent of the 851,000 registered Republicans voted in the Republican primary. Only 30 percent of the 560,000 registered “unaffiliated” voters showed up strictly to vote on the constitutional amendment, which isn’t surprising because it takes a great deal of motivation to crash somebody else’s party just to have one drink.

In a midterm cycle whose dynamics favor the GOP, it was certainly impressive that Kansas Democrats turned out somewhat more strongly than Republicans. But marginal improvements like this won’t translate into big Democratic updates across the country; while there’s evidence that making abortion a campaign issue can help Democratic candidates, reproductive rights will only literally be on the ballot in a few states in November (California, Kentucky, and Vermont — plus Michigan is a strong possibility).

What Kansas does signify is something we should have known all along from national polling on the subject: There are a lot more pro-choice Republican voters these days than anti-abortion Democratic voters. According to a Pew Research survey last month, when asked whether abortion should be legal or illegal in all or most cases, Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters favored legal abortion by an 80-18 margin, while Republicans and Republican-leaning voters opposed legal abortion by a 60-38 margin. By that measure, it shouldn’t be too surprising if upward of a third of Kansas voters who regularly vote Republican opposed taking away abortion rights. Indeed, the overall Pew balance of public opinion on legalized abortion — 61 percent favoring and 37 percent opposing — isn’t that far from the 59-41 results on August 2 in Kansas.

The bad news for Democrats is that a lot of pro-choice voters may nonetheless vote Republican in November. But the good news is that some may feel strongly enough about the issue in the wake of Dobbs to switch parties or pressure the GOP to change its tune. The end of Roe v. Wade ensured that abortion will be a red-hot topic of discussion in federal, state, and local politics for the foreseeable future, and all those pro-choice Republican voters may feel poorly represented by the nearly universal lockstep anti-abortion positions of their elected officials. Their dissatisfaction could put a new strain on the ties that bind the Republican Party to the anti-abortion movement. And these voters may reconsider further support for a party that does not respect their basic rights.

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Kansas Shows the Untapped Power of Pro-Choice GOP Voters