by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

Earlier this month, Ohio voters voted to amend their state constitution to protect abortion rights, overturning a state law that banned abortion under most circumstances.  Voters have also affirmed abortion rights in California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont. The anti-abortion stand has not prevailed in any state that has voted directly on abortion rights, not even states that are heavily Republican, or have large concentrations of Catholics and/or evangelicals.  As many as 12 states may vote on abortion rights in 2024.  Of those, 6 currently have strict restrictions or bans on abortion which could potentially be overturned by voters.  The others would be voting to affirm the legality of abortion that is currently the law in their state.

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v Wade (1973) decision in Dobbs v Women’s Health Organization (2022), returning the question of regulating or even banning abortion to the states.  State legislatures acted quickly, some voting to ban abortion in nearly all circumstances, others voting to ban abortion after a certain number of weeks or after a fetal heartbeat is detected, and still others voting to affirm abortion rights in their states. Some states like Missouri even had “trigger laws” ready to go.  Passed before Dobbs was decided, these state laws took effect immediately upon the overturning of Roe.

Kansas was the first state to vote on abortion rights after Dobbs, and the results shocked many observers.  In 2019, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution implies a right to have an abortion in Hodes & Nauser v Schmidt.  The court did not prohibit all restrictions on abortion but did rule that the state must show a “compelling state interest” in order to regulate it. Anti-abortion activists shepherded a constitutional amendment through the state legislature that would overturn that court ruling and state that the Kansas Constitution does not protect abortion rights.  The Legislature sent it to voters, and the resulting campaign to pass the “Value Them Both” Amendment was heavily bankrolled by Catholic organizations.  In August, 2022, voters defeated the amendment, upholding the court’s ruling that abortion rights are protected by a whopping 18 point margin.

This stunned the pundits.  Kansas is a heavily Republican “red” state that has not voted for a Democrat to be President since 1964.  Kansas has not been represented by a Democrat in the U.S. Senate in a hundred years–the longest single-party streak of any state.  Beginning in the 1980s, evangelicals and conservative Catholics made substantial inroads into the state’s Republican Party, shifting it from a long history of moderate pragmatism to a much more conservative party, particularly during the governorship of Sam Brownback, who served previously as a U.S. Senator.  Brownback first won his Senate seat after upsetting the “establishment” Republican candidate in the 1996 primary.  He organized homeschoolers, anti-abortion activists, and conservative church groups.  Some moderate Republicans backed the Democratic candidate in the general election, but to no avail.  Brownback served in the Senate from 1997 until he stepped aside to seek and win the governorship in 2010, where he had no serious primary challenger and a badly underfunded Democratic opponent.  He became closely associated with his Administration’s tax-cutting experiment, but Brownback also remained very conservative on social issues including abortion rights.  He ended his second term early to take a job as U.S. Ambassador of Religious Freedom in the Trump Administration.  Raised Methodist, Brownback converted to Catholicism as an adult and embraced the ultraconservative Opus Dei movement. He had also been active in the conservative group of Congresspersons known as “the Family” or “the Fellowship.”

Brownback’s career was not the only sign that a conservative Catholic-evangelical alliance was on the rise in Kansas politics.  In 1991, anti-abortion activists converged on Wichita for what they called the “Summer of Mercy,” a wave of anti-abortion protests targeting Dr. George Tiller, one of the only doctors in the U.S. performing non-emergency late-term abortions.  This shifted Wichita politics for a generation.  Previously, Democrats had been able to win there.  Wichita’s politics were heavily influenced by the unions connected to its aerospace industry, and the area was represented in Congress by Democrat Dan Glickman, who is Jewish and later became Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton Administration.  After 1991, Wichita shifted rightward.  Its Congressional seat would then be represented by several Republicans including the super-conservative Todd Tiahart, as well as Mike Pompeo.  A close ally of the city’s libertarian Koch Industries, Pompeo became Secretary of State in the Trump Administration.

As for Dr. Tiller, he was assassinated in 2009 by an anti-abortion activist.  Earlier, his clinic had been firebombed in 1986 and he was non-fatally shot in 1993.

Drawing on this political shift, Kansas native Thomas Frank wrote about the rise of the religious right in his 2004 bestseller, What’s the Matter With Kansas.  The book’s title was a reprise of an 1896 Emporia Gazette editorial by William Allen White.  White’s piece was a rant against the Populist movement, but Frank had a different purpose in mind. A socialist, Frank argued that working-class people in Kansas and other states had essentially been deceived into voting against their own interests by the religious right.  According to him, the right had shifted political debate away from topics like affordable health insurance, labor unions, and the corporatization of agriculture, using evangelical churches and organizations to focus workers and rural voters on stands such as being anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ instead. The book proved very popular with liberals, and the idea that working class voters vote against their own interests when supporting Republicans became a common refrain.

Frank had his critics from the beginning, particularly in political science.  Larry Bartels published his point-by-point rebuttal called “What’s the Matter With What’s the Matter with Kansas?” in 2006.  Bartels found that the primary cause of white, working class movement from the Democratic to the Republican Party was caused by the region-specific realignment of the South.  He also found that white, working class voters tend to support abortion rights, that many anti-abortion voters are in fact college educated, and that the issues that move white workers toward the Republican party tend to revolve around economic issues, including a resentment of public welfare spending, not a desire to criminalize abortion.  Working class voters also have low voter turnout– many do not vote at all. Unmarried, non-college educated women have one of the lowest turnout rates of any group.

In a sense, Bartels helped foreshadow the rise of Donald Trump, who is anti-abortion but whose signature issue is opposition to immigration.  Trump has built a loyal base in the Republican Party despite his own personal behavior being sharply at odds with the teachings of conservative Catholics and evangelicals.

Fast forward to 2022.  I am considered an expert in Kansas politics and was consulted by reporters from as far away as France, asking for my prediction about the abortion rights vote.  I encouraged them not to assume that the anti-abortion amendment would pass, and I emphasized what I see as a strong libertarian culture in rural Kansas–one that might lead to Republican voters voting “no” on the amendment.  I was right not to dismiss the possibility of the “no” votes prevailing, but I had absolutely no idea that “no” would win by 18 points.  Nor did many other observers.  Since that time, abortion rights have been upheld in a number of Republican-voting states.  For example, Kentucky is a state that has become heavily Republican and has a large concentration of evangelicals–yet the pro-choice stand prevailed by 4 points in their 2022 vote.  This year, Ohio’s pro-choice Amendment 1 prevailed by 12 points in a former battleground state that turned red for Trump.

All this is to say, the election returns bode well for Larry Bartels; not so much for Thomas Frank.  Trump made strong overtures to the religious right and appointed three of the judges that voted to overturn Roe, but that was never his signature issue.  Instead, Trump relies heavily on appeals regarding race, law and order (ironically enough given Trump’s own legal troubles), and opposition to public welfare spending, not only with his signature border wall and “Muslim ban,” but also his outspoken attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement and even on individual, elected officials such as Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who is Muslim.  Meanwhile, some Republicans are now shifting toward a stance of leaving abortion rights to the states rather than calling for Congress to pass a national ban.

What does all of this mean for 2024?  For one thing, several more states will soon vote on abortion rights.  Things have gotten particularly contentious in Missouri, where Republican officials have tried everything from re-wording initiative petitions to insert anti-abortion language, to attaching an outlandish fiscal note to the ballot language, to stalling the signature-gathering process with lawsuits, to trying to limit the ability of the voters to rewrite the state constitution with a simple majority vote.  That last strategy was also tried–and failed– in Arkansas and Ohio.

What about the impact on other races?  Conventional wisdom holds that backlash against the Dobbs decision helped mitigate the expected “red wave” in 2022.  Democrats are clearly gearing up to campaign on abortion rights, but can it overcome President Biden’s high negative ratings, or will those subside in time for re-election?  We can only speculate at this time, but one thing is clear: not all voters who prefer Republicans–and Trump in particular–agree with the anti-abortion stance. There may be a number of things wrong with Kansas, but working class voters voting against their own interests because of abortion rights does not appear to be one of them.


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter