It’s a familiar pattern for this year’s midterm elections: One candidate for governor is trying to make the other one talk about abortion. But in most states, it’s the Democrat who’s pushing abortion into the conversation. In Kansas, it’s the Republican.
Just two months after Kansas voters emphatically rejected a ballot initiative that would have removed abortion rights from the state constitution, Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, is mostly skirting the issue. At a recent debate, her Republican opponent, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, needled Kelly about her support for abortion rights, saying that Kelly didn’t support any limits on when abortion should be legal. Kelly responded with the equivalent of a shrug. “I really for 18 years have had the same position on this issue,” she said. “So I really don’t have much more to say.”
Kelly’s silence on abortion shows that not all Democrats are convinced the issue can be deployed to their advantage, particularly in red-leaning states like Kansas. Instead, she’s been focusing on the economy and education, and tying Schmidt to the unpopular former governor Sam Brownback. None of the ads run by Kelly’s campaign have even mentioned the word “abortion.” And so far, it doesn’t look like a bad approach.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s Deluxe forecast,1 Kelly is slightly favored, with a 66-in-100 chance of winning the election in November, even though she’s one of the most vulnerable incumbent governors this cycle. And while the polls we do have so far show a tight race, a September poll from Emerson College/The Hill found that 53 percent of likely voters in Kansas have a favorable view of Kelly, while 45 percent view Schmidt favorably.
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There are a few reasons why it might be a smart strategy for a Democrat like Kelly to avoid a focus on abortion rights, even after the ballot initiative’s resounding defeat in August. For one thing, while other Democratic governors, like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, have built a brand around support for abortion rights, Kelly is different. “It’s not an issue she’s ever really focused on,” said Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers University-Camden and the director of the Center on American Women in Politics. Back in 2018, when Kelly was running against Republican Kris Kobach, she homed in on the same “kitchen-table issues” she’s highlighting this time, similarly breaking with a larger national trend by refusing to engage with her opponent’s Trumpian rhetoric on immigration and voter fraud.
At the time, that decision to stray from the national trend seemed to be a canny assessment of Kansas’s state politics. In races at the state or local level, voters may be less influenced by national issues and their own partisan identity. This is partially how Kelly was able to defeat Kobach by a solid 5-percentage-point margin in 2018, even though Trump won the state by double-digit margins in 2016 and 2020. Over the past decade or so, Republican presidential candidates have consistently won Kansas by double digits, but in 2014 and 2018, the gubernatorial margins were narrower.
This year, Kelly appears to be betting once again that what works for Democrats nationally won’t work for her in Kansas. After all, the fact that Kansans voted down an anti-abortion ballot amendment was never going to automatically translate into support for Democratic candidates. According to polling by Civiqs, Kansans are only slightly more likely to think abortion should be legal in all or most cases (49 percent) than to think it should be illegal in all or most cases (47 percent). And the anti-amendment campaign’s advertising didn’t focus on abortion rights in redder, more rural parts of the state — instead, its ads portrayed the amendment as a government intrusion into Kansans’ freedom and bodily autonomy, similar to a mask mandate.
Because the Kansas amendment was the first opportunity for voters to weigh in on the issue in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning abortion rights, the anti-amendment campaign also benefited from a lot of national attention — and national money.
Over the course of 2022, the anti-amendment campaign pulled in more than $10.5 million2 in financial contributions, including some major out-of-state cash. According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of campaign-finance filings from the two major groups on either side of the amendment, the vast majority (84 percent) of the anti-amendment donations of $50 or more3 came from donors with addresses outside Kansas, including one contribution of nearly $1.3 million from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and another contribution of nearly $1.5 million from Sixteen Thirty Fund, a left-leaning “dark money” group. By contrast, nearly $1.7 million came from donors with addresses inside Kansas.
The pro-amendment campaign, meanwhile, raised less money — nearly $6.7 million4 in financial contributions, according to its last report — but almost all of it (99 percent) came from donors with addresses in Kansas.5 That included some large donations, too, such as one contribution of nearly $1.3 million from the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas6 and one contribution of $300,000 from the Catholic Diocese of Wichita,7 so it’s hard to say whether one side had more grassroots support in Kansas than the other. What is clear from this data, however, is that the anti-amendment campaign’s large cash advantage was fueled mainly by out-of-state donors, not by a surge in financial support from within Kansas.
There’s other evidence, too, that abortion rights simply aren’t a big priority for Kansas voters in the upcoming midterm elections. According to that Emerson College poll, 48 percent of likely voters say the economy is the most important issue in the election, followed by a much smaller share (16 percent) who say abortion is the most important. The poll also found that only 72 percent of Kansans who voted “no” on the amendment (i.e., those in favor of preserving abortion rights in the state constitution) are planning to vote for Kelly, showing that support for a Democratic governor and opposition to the amendment aren’t linked for some voters.
So it makes some sense for Kelly to break with the nationwide trend and steer clear of the issue of abortion rights. Whether it’s a good idea for Schmidt to bring up the issue, however, is a different question. The Emerson College poll found that Kansas voters are actually more likely to say they align most with Kelly on abortion rights (48 percent) than with Schmidt (44 percent). It’s possible, therefore, that Schmidt might benefit from taking a page out of Kelly’s playbook and focus on matters like the economy instead of attacking her on an issue that isn’t a high priority for voters — and that he doesn’t have the advantage on.
Holly Fuong contributed research.