There’s No Place Like Kansas

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When Sharon Brown answered the door of her modest town home on a recent Saturday, she was a little rude at first to the two young women standing before her. Yazmin Bruno-Valdez and Melanie Haas introduced themselves as volunteers with Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, a group that sounds conservative but is actually fighting to preserve abortion rights in the state. They were knocking on doors in Wyandotte County, one of the state’s bluer pockets, urging voters to oppose an amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would pave the way for tighter abortion restrictions, even a total ban. Ms. Bruno-Valdez offered a “Vote No” flyer explaining the measure, but Ms. Brown misunderstood which side the women were on. Rocking black fuzzy slippers and a hot pink robe, she made a disgusted face and waved the volunteers away. “I believe in abortion,” she said, moving to shut her door.

It took some fast talking for the volunteers to explain that they too value reproductive rights — that voting “no” on the amendment in fact means voting “yes” to preserving abortion access. With that clarified, Ms. Brown warmed to the discussion, sharing her prediction of the grim future an abortion ban would bring — “They are going to start finding dead babies everywhere: in trash bags, in trash cans, in toilets, in fields.” She assured the duo that she would turn out on Aug. 2, when the measure will be on the Kansas primary election ballot.

Yazmin Bruno-Valdez and Melanie Haas handed out “Vote No” flyers in Kansas City last week.Credit…Shawn Brackbill for The New York Times

Confusion about the wording of the Republican-driven ballot measure — it’s delicately named Value Them Both, and simply figuring out what a “yes” or “no” vote means can be daunting — is just one of the hurdles that abortion rights supporters face in Kansas, which stands as the first big political test for abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June.

That ruling has turbocharged the Kansas amendment fight, which grew out of a state Supreme Court decision in 2019 that the Kansas Constitution “protects a woman’s right to decide whether to continue a pregnancy.” Money from abortion rights supporters has been flowing in, much of it from out of state, and there was a sharp increase in the state’s voter registration after the fall of Roe. TV and radio ads are up and running. The mass mailings are going out. Yards bloom with signs urging “Vote Yes!” or “Vote No.” Precincts are preparing for a surge in turnout.

Yet for all the fresh energy and attention being directed toward saving abortion in Kansas, it is hard not to feel that the reproductive-rights side is a little overwhelmed. Its most prominent player, Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, has a modest-size staff that seems to be constantly dashing around the state to this or that meeting or event. And while the group says it has plenty of volunteers, it’s not as though folks are consistently showing up in droves for canvassing events. After the door-knocking in Wyandotte County, I showed up for the launch of an afternoon event in nearby Johnson County, a politically moderate, affluent suburban enclave thought to be prime territory for the anti-amendment side. There were just a handful of people milling around. (I was assured that an earlier event had been better attended.)

Canvassers gathered at a restaurant in Wyandotte County to strategize before going out.Credit…Shawn Brackbill for The New York Times

This is not to disparage the yeoman’s work being done by the pro-choice forces here. But some of the challenges that Democrats and abortion rights supporters are dealing with are likely to pop up other places too, as the crucial battles on abortion shift to the state level. Lawmakers elsewhere are moving fast on the issue, including in multiple states where legislators are pushing to amend their constitutions. Just this month, the Republican-controlled legislature in Pennsylvania took the first of two votes needed to advance an amendment excluding abortion rights from its Constitution. Kansas is only the beginning.

The Sunflower State, of course, is a deeply conservative place. In Kansas, registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats, 851,882 to 495,574, according to the state’s latest data. Heck, unaffiliated voters outnumber Democrats. The last Democrat Kansans backed for president was Lyndon Johnson. And while two of the past three elected governors have been Democrats (including the incumbent, Laura Kelly), Republicans enjoy a supermajority in both chambers of the State Legislature.

A home in Johnson County, a Kansas City suburb.Credit…Shawn Brackbill for The New York Times

Nonetheless, views on abortion here are more nuanced than one might assume. A survey conducted late last year by Fort Hays State University found that only around 20 percent of Kansans supported making abortion illegal in all cases, including rape and incest. More than 62 percent said that women are “in a better position” than politicians to make decisions about whether to have an abortion, and a razor-thin majority agreed that Kansas state government should not place any regulations on abortion.

Abortion opponents have no intention of losing this fight because of such pesky nuances. And the Republican Legislature has strategically, one might even say sinisterly, arranged the details of the election to improve their odds of victory. Most notably, rather than put the amendment on the general election ballot in November, they pushed to hold the special election vote at the same time as the August primary election, when turnout tends to be dramatically lower. This timing also disadvantages the state’s unusually large population of unaffiliated voters, who account for nearly 30 percent of the electorate. These voters are typically excluded from most races on the primary ballot and may not realize that they are even allowed to vote on the amendment.

But wait, there’s more! The language of most legislation tends to be ponderous and opaque. But the Value Them Both amendment is confusing to the point of being misleading. It references government funding of abortions and specifies that legislators “may pass laws regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, laws that account for circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or circumstances of necessity to save the life of the mother.” So does that mean laws that would protect abortion access under such “circumstances” or ones that would ban it even in those cases? That would be up to the legislators. But reading through the text, one could come away thinking that the amendment aims to shore up certain abortion rights or simply maintain the status quo. (Spoiler alert: It does not.)

The anti-abortion side claims that the goal of the amendment is to put the abortion issue back into the hands of the people of Kansas. (The effect would be a bit like a state-level version of what the U.S. Supreme Court said it was doing by killing Roe.) But this entire campaign seems designed to obfuscate and complicate the issue — and to minimize the number of non-Republicans who vote. (The Value Them Both coalition declined requests to discuss these issues.) The whole process smacks not so much of returning power to the people as of showing contempt for them and for the democratic process, a trend that is becoming standard operating procedure throughout much of the G.O.P.

Credit…Shawn Brackbill for The New York Times

Simply educating voters on the basic when, who, how and why of the looming vote is one of the big challenges confronting reproductive-rights supporters. Much of it comes down to volunteers clocking long hours on phone banks or, better still, trudging door to door in the brutal Kansas heat. Ms. Haas, Ms. Bruno-Valdez and their fellow travelers are working overtime.

Credit…Shawn Brackbill for The New York Times

They need to. Theirs is an uphill battle against a well-organized, well-funded anti-abortion movement with the infrastructure and resources to take the fight wherever the need arises. The Catholic churches have thrown their weight — and money — behind the amendment. The Archdiocese of Kansas City has already donated $500,000 and the Wichita Diocese $250,000. (Church advocacy is permissible for a nonpartisan ballot measure.) Last month, the national organization Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America kicked in $1.3 million. The group has boasted that its student volunteers, from across the nation, already have knocked on 150,000 doors.

Out-of-state support is coming in for both sides. But in red and purple states, as we’re seeing in Kansas, the reproductive rights side has to take extra care to avoid the perception that it has been hijacked by elitist, lefty outsiders. A hot talking point among the amendment’s supporters is that “the radical left” and “coastal elites” are trying to ram their values down the throats of sensible, moderate Kansans. They also warn that, as surrounding states (Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas) slash abortion access, Kansas will increasingly become an abortion “destination.” This may sound like a good thing to reproductive rights fans in blue states, but it is a message abortion foes are betting will upset many Kansas moderates. The folks at Kansans for Constitutional Freedom keep the messaging focused on the rights of Kansans and emphasize all the new local volunteers who have come forward in recent weeks.

As Election Day approaches, this is an increasingly intense, complicated fight. Reproductive rights supporters in other states would do well to keep close tabs on the action. One day soon, a similarly intense, complicated fight may be headed their way.

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