It was Election Night in a hotel ballroom in Overland Park, Kansas, and Ashley Totti didn’t know what to think. For months, she has been a public figure in the fight to protect abortion rights from a ballot initiative that would change the state constitution and open the door to strict restrictions or even a ban. The polls were merciless, the opposition was relentless and he was afraid to trust the promising early returns. Nervous, she dropped into a conference room where Mike Gaughan, a friend and colleague, was sitting at a computer. “He pointed out the impressive numbers in some of the big counties and also big numbers in some of the not-so-big counties in rural areas,” Ol told me. It was really happening. A broad coalition with a new message was beating Kansas lifers at their own game.
All of them, working in politics for eighteen years, never dreamed that the pro-choice forces, calling themselves Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, would win by about eighteen points in an election they were made to lose. Republicans in the state legislature, determined to clear a roadblock to tighter abortion regulations, had carefully chosen a date with historically low turnout, drafted strange ballot language and campaigned from misdirection of the audience, issuing dark warnings and refusing to tell voters what the Legislature would do if the measure passed. The day before the polls opened on August 2, voters in Kansas received an anonymous text message instructing them to “give women a choice” by voting “YES on protecting women’s health.” In effect, a yes vote would strip the right to abortion from the state constitution, giving significant power to anti-abortion Republicans in the legislature. Washington Position found the message on a Republican political action committee.
Despite the noise, more than five hundred and forty thousand voters cast ballots to defend existing abortion rights, in a state that Donald Trump—who appointed three anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court—took by nearly fifteen points two years ago. More voters showed up than any primary in state history. “I’m still in shock,” they all emailed, eighteen hours after The Associated Press announced the election. The pro-choice campaign had not focused strictly on access to abortion, but on the idea that decisions about pregnancy and women’s health should not be made by politicians, nor should women’s rights be taken away. “We actually talked a lot about abortion, but we talked about it in a different way,” Ol told me. “We talked about a much broader set of values that were shared by many more Kansans.”
What started small, with a core group of well-known supporters including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and a Wichita abortion clinic called Trust Women, grew into a coalition of about forty organizations that spent more than six million dollars and knocked on tens of thousands of doors. . The partners didn’t agree on everything — far from it, Ohl said — but characterized the effort as nonpartisan. The campaign reached beyond Democrats to Republican moderates, particularly women, who were instrumental in the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House in 2018. Organizers also spoke to rural conservatives, taking time to hit the door to counties that, in the past, may have been overlooked. “If we want to increase access to abortion in places like the Midwest and the South, then we have to do it differently,” Ol told me. “You have to be willing to communicate with people who have different views than you.”
Anti-vote forces won at least eighteen counties on Tuesday. In 2020, Joe Biden won five. They all told me about a woman who called from Pittsburgh—a college town in Crawford’s country—and offered to volunteer. The county supported Barack Obama in 2008, but Trump swept Hillary Clinton and Biden there in the previous two presidential elections. The volunteer knocked on sixteen hundred doors, all told. the ballot initiative carried the county by nearly eleven points. In Seward County, located in a conservative, western pocket of the state, the yes side won just four-tenths of a percent. Kansans for Constitutional Freedom received donations from eighty of the state’s one hundred and five counties. The lesson, All said, is to build partnerships with local organizers who know the landscape and can be trusted messengers to their neighbors and friends.
Quarterbacks are already studying Kansas’ playbook with an eye toward the November midterms. All and her colleagues have spoken to organizers in Kentucky, where voters are considering a similar constitutional amendment that would open the door to tighter restrictions on abortion. Meanwhile, Pete Giangreco, a Chicago-based Democratic strategist who advises candidates around the country, told me that a client e-mailed him links to television ads created by Kansans for Constitutional Freedom. In one, a doctor says the amendment “ties doctors’ hands.” In another, a retired Protestant minister says he is “replacing religious freedom with government control.” In a third, a narrator warns of a “slippery slope that could endanger more than your individual and personal rights.” Giangreco said, “These concepts will find their way into Democratic messaging at all levels.”
Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, which is supporting more than five hundred progressive candidates this year, sees abortion rights as a particularly powerful issue. The result in Kansas, he told me, “reinforces the advice we’ve been giving candidates since day one, which is don’t be afraid to stand up for your values. The way you talk about abortion in a place like Kansas is going to be a little different than the way you talk about it in a place like New York or California, but it’s really important to talk about it, especially now.”
On Tuesday night, while the winners celebrated in Overland Park, Susan Humphries was three hours away in Wichita with friends and fellow Republican lawmakers, feeling disgusted by the results of the referendum. A few days earlier, Humphries, the anti-abortion state representative, had texted me after a research session: “We’re feeling optimistic. I had very good interaction at the gates today.” At the watch party, seeing results that were “not even close to closing,” as he put it, the mood was sour and the process of figuring out what went wrong was just beginning. When we spoke later, she denounced the “abortion industry with the help of the corporate media” and what she called a “confusion campaign” on the no side. She said some die-hard abortion opponents voted against the amendment because they believed it did not go far enough, a situation she found “really hard to swallow.” But, he added, the anti-abortion movement, fifty years in the making, is a marathon. “We will regroup,” he said.
That was also the message from Value Them Both, the anti-abortion coalition that included local Catholic Church leaders, notably Kansas City Archbishop Joseph F. Nauman, the former chairman of the conference’s pro-life activities committee. of the US Catholic Bishops. Catholic organizations, led by the archdiocese, contributed more than four million dollars to the election effort. Both attributed the election defeat to “millions of out-of-state dollars” and a “disinformation attack by radical left-wing organizations.” On two trips to Kansas during the campaign, I spoke with many women who were neither misinformed nor relying on “radical left” messages. They simply wanted to guarantee access to abortion—for themselves, their relatives, their friends, or strangers.
Ashley All and her allies are already warning that the fight is far from over. In the three decades since abortion opponents staged the Summer of Mercy in Wichita, lying in front of cars to block women from reaching clinics, abortion restrictions have multiplied and Republicans now hold supermajorities in the state legislature. making it easier to override a veto by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who is seeking re-election this year. “I don’t expect it to end here,” Ohl told reporters on Wednesday. “I fully believe they will come back in January, if not before, and try different laws and restrictions.”