Democrats double down on abortion rights after Kansas referendum

GOP tries to keep focus on economics as candidates oppose exceptions

The lone Democrat in the Kansas delegation, Rep. Sharice Davids faces a Toss-up race in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The lone Democrat in the Kansas delegation, Rep. Sharice Davids faces a Toss-up race in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 4, 2022 at 10:31am

Democrats seeking to retain control of Congress are doubling down on the need for abortion rights after Kansas voters resoundingly defeated a ballot measure that would have made it easier for state lawmakers to restrict the procedure.

The vote on Tuesday, in one of the country’s most conservative states, was the first real measure of voters’ willingness to cast ballots to support abortion rights in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, which reversed the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. 

Democrats said the measure’s defeat by a 59 percent to 41 percent vote reflected polling in battleground House and Senate districts in recent months that has shown that backlash over the Supreme Court decision could improve their chances in the midterm elections and help counter the historical and economic factors working against them — especially as Republican nominees in competitive races have overwhelmingly said they supported the Dobbs ruling. 

[Kansans reject an effort to end state’s right to abortion]

“What was done in Kansas shows you how much people in this country value reproductive rights and freedoms,” Democratic National Committee senior adviser Cedric Richmond said Wednesday in a press call previewing the party’s midterm strategy. “Republicans are so extreme in this area that it’s caused so much concern and anxiety that people are going to show up to defend it, and show how much they value those freedoms.”

But Republicans and some political analysts cautioned against making predictions based on a single-issue vote, pointing out that midterm voters could be driven by more partisan concerns than those who weigh in on ballot referendums.

“The economic mess Democrats created by ignoring their own economists and saddling Americans with record-high prices is the No. 1 issue in every competitive district,” said Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans. 

The 18-point margin of defeat for the Kansas referendum, which would have have added language to the state constitution stating that abortion is not a protected right, surprised even some Democrats. The vote came in an August election when there was not a major Democratic primary on the ballot, in a state Donald Trump won by 15 points in 2020. 

More than 900,000 ballots were counted as of Wednesday afternoon. That’s close to 90 percent of the number of ballots cast in the state during the November 2018 midterms, a wave election that put Democrats in charge of the House.

Campaign ripples

The vote led to a flurry of statements decrying what were branded “extreme” Republican positions on abortion rights. 

Only a handful of Republican nominees in competitive Senate races, for example, have said they would support limited exceptions to abortion bans. Democrats said even those positions were out of step with voters. In some of the states, voters recently passed state laws protecting abortion rights. 

“What we saw in Kansas is that voters really delivered a resounding message that Republicans’ attack on a woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions will be answered at the ballot box,” said Nora Keefe, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. 

“We fully intend to make sure folks see and hear about Republican Senate candidates’ extreme agenda — from banning abortion nationwide and further rolling back reproductive rights to gutting Medicare and Social Security — so that voters can hold them to account at the ballot box come November,” said Veronica Yoo, a spokesperson for the Senate Majority PAC, the biggest outside group supporting Senate Democrats. 

Nevada Republican Adam Laxalt, whose race against Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is rated a Toss-up by Inside Elections, has said Nevada’s law, which allows abortion up through six months of pregnancy, is settled law, but that he would support a state ban on the procedure after 13 weeks. 

“I can just tell you in Nevada, which I’ve always said, is that the United States Supreme Court repealing Roe v. Wade is going to galvanize voters across the state, because we’re a pro-choice state,” Cortez Masto said. “And not just the fact that we’re pro-choice, that we recognize the importance across the country, like a majority of Americans that are pro-choice, that it’s about women’s rights and reproductive freedom.”

Joe O’Dea, whose race against Democratic incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado is rated Likely Democratic, has said he would support early term abortion rights, without specifying when the cutoff would be.

And in Pennsylvania, GOP nominee Mehmet Oz has campaigned as “100 percent pro-life” but has said he supports exceptions to abortion bans in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. 

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he expected the economy and inflation to remain the top issue for voters this year, but said Republicans should be “compassionate” to people who must make a decision on whether to have an abortion and acknowledged that it’s an important issue for voters. 

“If you look at where the country is … the country believes in the value of life. I think they know that it’s a tough choice for a mom,” Scott told reporters on Wednesday. “I think that people expect that there would be reasonable restrictions and reasonable exceptions, and I think that they also believe the Democrats are radical.” 

After President Joe Biden renewed his support for abortion rights on Wednesday, the Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel signaled that the campaign would continue to be about economics.

“Our country is in a recession, Americans can’t afford gas or groceries, and yet all Joe Biden cares about is pushing his radical and unpopular late-term abortion agenda. Republicans will continue to fight for commonsense pro-life protections and the pocketbook issues,” she said.

But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, appearing on Fox News on Wednesday, acknowledged that abortion was “a highly sensitive issue, and it will be playing out all year. 

“And I don’t think we really know until the end of the year what kind of an impact putting this issue back into the hands of those of us who were elected, as opposed to nine unelected judges, will have on the country,” the Kentucky Republican said. About the Kansas vote, he said only: “It tells us that there were a lot of people interested in the issue in Kansas, there’s no question about that.”

‘The next test’

In the House, Republicans need a net gain of four seats to win majority control and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Democrats, sent out a series of news releases calling the Kansas vote “a warning” for GOP candidates in multiple states. 

The DCCC has counted 38 NRCC-endorsed challengers to Democratic incumbents who supported overturning Roe, 10 vulnerable House Republicans and 18 NRCC-backed challengers who support banning abortions without exceptions for rape or incest, and four vulnerable House Republicans and three NRCC-endorsed challengers who support jailing doctors who support abortions.

The Kansas vote also may have buoyed the chances of the state's lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Sharice Davids. Her Republican challenger, Amanda Adkins, supported the ballot referendum. 

Davids defeated Adkins in 2020, but her 3rd District became more Republican after redistricting, and the November race is rated a Toss-up. Still, 67 percent of voters in the 3rd District voted against the referendum, according to data from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Kansas City Star political editor Bryan Lowry pointed out on Twitter that counties that voted “no” were not just concentrated in the more left-leaning suburbs, but also included rural counties where Democrats have struggled. 

“Kansans watched for months as neighboring states passed extreme bans on abortion,” Davids said in a statement. “That’s not what Kansans want, and last night we stood up strongly against extremism — and that includes my opponent Amanda Adkins, who not only supported the amendment but has pushed for total bans without exception for rape or incest.”

Adkins’ campaign did not return a request for comment. 

In New York, Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, the Democrat running in a special election in the 19th District, has focused on abortion throughout his campaign and said Wednesday that the Aug. 23 election is “the next test for abortion rights.”

“We have an opportunity to send yet another message to far-right, anti-abortion candidates; we won’t go back, and we will step up and fight like hell for our rights,” Ryan said in a statement. 

“Our campaign is being powered by people who are pissed off and fired up that our fundamental freedoms are under attack, and that energy is growing and building every day.”

Ryan faces Republican Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County executive, who has said that he is anti-abortion but that the Supreme Court ruling won’t change abortion access in New York, where the state allows an abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy or after 24 weeks if the mother’s life or health is at risk. 

Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.