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Kansas abortion vote offers clues for the midterms

Biden got only 17% of the vote in rural Russell County in 2020. On Tuesday in the same county, 45% voted to uphold abortion rights.

WASHINGTON — The biggest political story last week emerged from Kansas, where citizens voted down a proposal that would have removed abortion rights protections from the state constitution. But the biggest political story going forward may be the meaning the Kansas vote has in other states in the coming months and years.

Tuesday’s results were notable for a few reasons. First was the massive turnout. More people voted on the ballot measure than in the Democratic and Republican governor's races combined. Second was the size of the defeat — voters rejected the measure by nearly 18 percentage points.

Many analysts rightly offered words of caution in reading the results. The vote was in just one state, and it came as the abortion debate was especially charged, shortly after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June overturned Roe V. Wade.

But there is evidence that the Kansas vote may have legs outside the state this fall, in part because Kansas isn’t just the ruby red farmland many Americans have in their minds’ eyes.

To be sure, Kansas looks like an outlier in some ways. It has only about 36 people per square mile, compared to the U.S. average of 94 people per square mile. And Kansas hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. Nationally, the split is just about even in that time, with Republicans winning eight times and Democrats winning seven.

But when you look at measures such as education and racial and ethnic diversity, Kansas looks more like the U.S. than one might expect.

The population is about 75% white non-Hispanic. That’s higher than the national figure of about 59%, but it doesn’t even place Kansas in the top 15 states for the population group. Kansas' proportion of people with bachelor’s degrees, 33.9%, is slightly higher than the national number, 32.9%.

And here’s the thing: Across all kinds of communities in Kansas, there was surprising support for maintaining the right to an abortion.

Consider Johnson County, the home of Kansas City’s big, wealthy, well-educated suburbs, including Overland Park. The “no” vote did well there, as you might expect, but the margin was remarkable compared to the 2020 presidential results.

Johnson County produced a quarter-million votes (massive turnout for a primary election) on Tuesday, and “no” got 69% of them. President Joe Biden won Johnson County in 2020 but by 16 fewer percentage points, 53%. In fact, the “no” vote Tuesday night got almost as many votes in Johnson County (169,000) as Biden did in 2020 (184,000).

If the midterm elections are going to be about the suburbs, as many analysts expect, the numbers indicate how potent the abortion issue could be in the fall.

But it wasn’t just the wealthy suburbs where there was movement Tuesday. Consider the vote in rural, Republican Russell County, the birthplace of the late GOP Sen. Bob Dole. As might be expected, it voted in favor of the proposal, which would have removed the right to an abortion in Kansas, but the margin was much closer than had been expected.

“No” captured 45% of the 2,281 votes in Russell County. That might not sound impressive, but Biden got only 17% of the vote in the county in 2020. And the 1,034 “no” votes in Tuesday’s primary far surpassed the 600 votes Biden got in the county in the general election in 2020.

The differences may sound small, but they can be hugely important. In politics, even when you win a race, you rarely win everywhere. Victory can be as much about holding down losses in unfriendly places as it is about running up margins among supporters. Abortion rights advocates had both sides of that equation working Tuesday.

And beyond Tuesday’s results, there are other signs in the data that Democrats may have found an important issue for the fall. TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm, looked at voter registrations after the Dobbs decision and found a spike in new registrations by women in Kansas.

The numbers showed that after Dobbs, nearly 70% of the new voters registering in Kansas were women. And other states that are likely to have abortion proposals on their ballots in the fall also show growing pro-women gender gaps among voter registrations since Dobbs, although not as dramatic as Kansas’.

In Colorado, where an abortion ban might be on the ballot, 55% of new registrants since Dobbs have been women. And in Michigan, where the ballot is likely to feature a constitutional amendment that would guarantee women the right to abortions, 54% of the new registrants since Dobbs have been women.

The numbers suggest a pro-abortion rights (and likely a pro-Democratic) bump in those states, at least for now.

Of course, the abortion fight never stands still — it evolves, and the post-Roe fight is just beginning. Both pro-abortion rights groups and anti-abortion rights activists will be trying to learn from what happened last week in Kansas. And Election Day is still three months away. That’s a lot of time for the larger issue environment to change.

But last week Kansas delivered a shock to the political system, and a lot of the data suggests that what happened there could reverberate beyond its borders in November.