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Kansas Provides a Roadmap for Democrats on Abortion
And exposes Republicans' own 'coalition brain' problem
The proposed state constitutional amendment that would have permitted state lawmakers in Kansas to prohibit abortion was soundly defeated yesterday, losing by a margin of nearly 20 points, despite the state’s Republican tilt. Democrats should take heart about this. In most states, even reddish ones, the electorate is more pro-choice than it is pro-life; abortion is an issue whose salience politically advantages Democrats; and it is possible to win abortion protections at the ballot box.
There are also some specific lessons Democrats should draw about how to produce further successes on abortion — success in terms of winning elections and motivating support for Democratic candidates, and also success in enacting policies to protect abortion rights.
First, it’s worth looking at the messaging in the advertisements from the “no” campaign.
Here’s one ad that says passing the amendment would lead to “a strict government mandate designed to interfere with private medical decisions.” It adds “Kansans don’t want another government mandate” — superimposing that message over a COVID mask mandate sign. The ad doesn’t even mention the word abortion.
Another ad features one woman’s abortion story, a heartbreaking case involving the sort of abortion that the largest fraction of respondents will tell you should be legal in any poll — one where her life was at risk if she didn’t get one. “It could ban any abortion with no exceptions, even in cases like mine,” she warns, regarding the amendment.
Rachel Cohen, a reporter at Vox who has been doing good writing on internal Democratic debates over abortion strategy, notes on Twitter that “the Kansas coalition leading the fight against amendment targeted their messaging and campaign focus carefully to polling.” You can see that in these messages — a focus on opposing “government mandates” seems designed to speak to moderates or even conservatives, not progressives with strong pro-choice views.
As Cohen noted last month, “although a majority of American voters have repeatedly said they believe Roe should be upheld, roughly one-third of that majority personally opposes abortion.” The “no” campaign in Kansas aimed squarely at those voters, making a forceful argument that the amendment would allow an extreme ban, going against the wishes even of many voters whose views about abortion are broadly negative.
The messaging in the Kansas campaign couldn’t be further from the Groups-Speak mush I have complained about previously — no “reproductive justice,” no “men get abortions, too,” — and it also ignored the sometimes-fashionable idea that you should brush right past voters’ internal qualms about the morality of abortion and simply make the case that abortions themselves are good.
“Celebrities, lawmakers, and activists have encouraged amplifying abortion stories, even, or especially, less sympathetic ones,” Cohen wrote last month. “Activists have also emphasized that messages about a ‘woman and her doctor’ could diminish the reproductive agency of the pregnant woman herself.” But here, one of the “no” ads in Kansas features a (male) doctor discussing how the amendment could force him to violate the Hippocratic oath by rendering him unable to provide an abortion to a woman who needs one for health reasons.
I’m heartened by what we saw in Kansas — not just that the amendment won so resoundingly, but that Democrats demonstrated the ability to run a calculated, poll-tested campaign that is built around the views and concerns of the mass electorate that is wary of what would happen if abortion were banned, rather than the attitudes of what White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield described accurately (if intemperately) earlier this summer as “activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party.” It shows that the party can prioritize winning over intra-coalition posturing when it really counts.
So what are some lessons for the future? One is that Democrats should seek out opportunities to put abortion rights on the ballot. If they can win in Kansas, they can win in many places. Not every state allows initiated referenda or constitutional amendments, but many states where abortion rights are gone or at risk do, especially in the Midwest and in the Mountain West. Not only can these ballot measures win, they may also be able to do what appears to have happened in Kansas this week: Generate a turnout advantage for Democrats, who are more motivated on the abortion issue than Republicans are. That can mean winning more electoral races up and down the ballot.
But there is also a key lesson here for Republicans.
I’ve knocked Democrats for being in denial about where abortion rights stand (clinging to a “protecting Roe” frame when there’s no Roe to protect anymore) but a lot of Republicans are in denial, too — about the sheer unpopularity of the party’s now-default position that abortion should be broadly prohibited; about the responsibilities of governing, which mean (among other things) that they can’t just wave off concerns about hospitals’ general counsels being wary about approving abortions that could lead to litigation about whether a woman’s life was really at risk; and about the extent to which Dobbs may both motivate Democrats to turn out and motivate voters upset about inflation and energy prices to keep voting Democratic anyway.
If you are a Republican with strong pro-life convictions, all of that is not necessarily a reason to compromise on abortion. The point of winning elections is to make policy, and if you care a lot about prohibiting abortion, you should be willing to pay a political price to do so. But there used to be a lot more pro-choice Republicans than there are now. Some of them have sorted out of the party, and some of them have had sincere changes of mind. But I suspect there are a lot of Republicans — both voters and officeholders — who have adopted a pro-life position as the issue polarized, essentially out of a team mentality. You can think of it as the Republican version of “coalition brain”: the pro-lifers have been loyal members of the coalition, sticking up for the economic conservatives and the foreign-policy conservatives when it mattered, and especially while Roe and Casey were still in force, it may have felt easy to “throw them a bone” by adopting a position on abortion that was unpopular but low-salience because your nominally preferred policy could not actually be imposed.
So if you are a Republican who does not have especially strong pro-life convictions, it’s worth considering: How much political capital do you really want the party to spend on imposing very unpopular, total or near-total abortion bans? Because if anyone is going to push the party toward a more popular position — for example, toward a “European-style” abortion policy where the procedure is legal up until about the 15th week of pregnancy with extensive restrictions thereafter — it’s going to have to be you. The pro-lifers aren’t going to do it for you.
There were also primary elections on Tuesday in Arizona, Michigan, and Missouri, and the results were a resounding win for the Trump wing of the party.1 Trump’s preferred candidates were nominated for Arizona Governor, Arizona Senate, and downballot offices in Arizona. In Michigan, Trump’s endorsed candidate for the third congressional district, John Gibbs, beat incumbent Peter Meijer, who voted to impeach Trump; Gibbs had a significant assist from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his behalf, on the theory that Gibbs is far more likely to lose to a Democrat in November. And in Missouri, Eric won.
The main observation I want to make about these results — a fact that has been remarked on a lot, but still not enough — is that Trump has done extensive damage to the Republican party’s interests through his involvement in this year’s primary elections. In race after race — Arizona Governor, Arizona Senate, Georgia Senate, Maryland Governor, Massachusetts Governor, Michigan 3rd, Pennsylvania Governor, Pennsylvania Senate, this is not an exhaustive list — he’s intervened to ensure the party nominated a less-electable candidate than establishment figures would have preferred. He also tried, but failed, to do this in the Georgia Governor race.
In other cases — like the race for Senate in New Hampshire — the extent to which Trump has made it degrading to be a national Republican officeholder was likely a factor that dissuaded the party’s most electable candidate (in that case, popular Gov. Chris Sununu) from taking on the race.
Should the DCCC have intervened in Meijer’s race? Some people have pointed out the limited upside: even if Democratic nominee Hillary Scholten will beat Gibbs and would have lost to Meijer, Democrats are extremely likely to end up in the minority in the House anyway. People have also pointed out (correctly) that promoting an election-denier candidate like Gibbs suggests Democrats have been less than sincere in their histrionics about the unique threat of “anti-democracy” candidates. I agree with that, and I think you’ll note, I’m not someone who engages in those histrionics.
But I think there’s one more political upside for Democrats from their meddling, one that is seen in the bellyaching and scolding from establishment Republicans about Democrats’ role in Meijer’s loss. The environment in which a candidate like Peter Meijer cannot be renominated is extremely demoralizing to Republicans like Peter Meijer — relatively moderate, possessed of ideological convictions, in politics for reasons other than memes and wanting to suck up to Donald Trump, capable of appealing to the sorts of upscale suburban voters the party has hemorrhaged in recent years.
Cultivating an environment where those candidates lose primaries helps Democrats not just by eliminating certain specific strong candidates, but by making it harder for Republicans to fix their candidate quality problems across the board. Not only is this the sort of environment where Chris Sununu declines to run for Senate, it’s one where the next Peter Meijer (or the next Anthony Gonzalez, for that matter) is more likely to look at the prospect of entering Republican politics and say, “To hell with it.”2
Look again at the primaries in Pennsylvania. How did Mehmet Oz and Doug Mastriano win? Partly, it was because Trump supported them. But it was also partly because they faced weak fields. Oz, who appears to still live in New Jersey, was running against a hedge fund executive from Connecticut and some talk radio lunatic. Can you even name any of Mastriano’s primary opponents? Pennsylvania is a swing state where Republicans have demonstrated increasing strength over the last decade. So where the hell is their bench?
I think part of the answer is: Trumpification means some of the people who could be the party’s strongest candidates in competitive races aren’t even interested in entering or staying in politics. And this creates a structural advantage for Democrats — it’s not an accident that we keep seeing these races with a really significant candidate quality gap, even races like Michigan Governor where Trumpian interference wasn’t a material factor.
What political party, possessed of the capability to foment that dynamic, would pass on the opportunity? The only reason Republicans don’t do it to Democrats is that it wouldn’t work. So if you’re a Republican who thinks this sucks, you should be thinking hard about what you can do to render it a non-functional strategy in the future, because I don’t think you’re going to shame Democrats out of stopping — and besides, most of the trouble for your good candidates is coming from inside the house, anyway.
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Though not so much in Washington State, where the top-two primary system allowed crossover voting that appears in early returns to have helped Republican Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse to proceed to a general election despite having voted to impeach Trump.
Or, if they have sufficiently flexible views — as some talented political aspirants do — maybe they enter politics as Democrats.