While they’re both still red states, they’re now universes apart after Kansas voters themselves, in a referendum, overwhelmingly maintained abortion as a right protected in the state constitution, even as, mere days later, the Republican-controlled Indiana state legislature and Gov. Eric Holcomb outlawed almost all abortions in the Hoosier State.
The Kansas referendum – which attracted thousands of new voters – is now a cautionary tale to some on the right who fear the party woke a sleeping giant, even as it now becomes a guiding light to the left as they attempt to defy all odds and maintain their majorities in Congress. Only a few states will have abortion-related referendums on their ballots this fall, which is why the Indiana legislature’s new anti-abortion law portends things to come unless Democrats can claw back recent GOP gains in state legislatures nationwide. No matter the outcome this fall, this year’s elections mark the first chapter in the great remaking of these newly divided states of America.
Are Republicans the dog that caught the car?
Under the unrelenting, heavy-handed leadership of GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans reshaped the Supreme Court between 2016 (when the GOP blocked fmr. President Obama nominee Merrick Garland) and 2020 (when fmr. President Trump saw his third justice, Amy Coney Barrett, confirmed by the Senate). Supreme Court politics are one thing. Now Senate Republicans are dealing with the fallout of the court’s decisions, and most didn’t expect Kansas voters to come out in droves last week to protect abortion rights.
“I think that shocked a lot of people. I think it's an illustration of who's motivated,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) told Raw Story at the Capitol.
There’s a funny thing about Kansas voters’ decision to maintain abortion rights. It’s not news. At least not to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
“The returns in Kansas should have surprised exactly nobody. For years now, poll after poll after poll has shown that the overwhelming majority of Americans want to see Roe v. Wade as the law,” Warren told Raw Story while riding an elevator in the Capitol.
In Kansas, abortion rights were supported by roughly 59% of voters. A new national poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that that 65% of Americans oppose the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs, while another 61% want a guaranteed right to access abortion care. Warren says it’s time the blinders come off.
“It’s the extremist Republicans and the completely out of touch Supreme Court that they've put in place that simply haven’t been listening. They've been drinking their own Kool-Aid for too long, and Kansas is a wake-up call,” Warren said.
Since 1974, the year after Roe v. Wade became the law of these lands, each year, thousands of, mostly religious, Republicans take a pilgrimage to Washington where they march, pray, block traffic, and descend on the Supreme Court, demanding the sweeping decision Justice Samuel Alito and the other four ultra-conservatives on the court ruled. Unlike in years past, this summer the nation’s capital – along with cities nationwide – witnessed pro-abortion protests, sit-ins, and marches. Democrats say the tides have turned.
“No anti-abortion candidate is safe,” Warren said.
That’s new. For most of the past half-century, Democrats – from elected leaders to a new generation of voters who never imagined reproductive rights were up for debate – viewed Roe as settled law. They grew complacent, especially in Washington.
In 1977, Congress adopted the Hyde Amendment which barred federal funds from paying for abortion services, except in rare cases. Roughly 300,000 low-income women received taxpayer-funded abortions through Medicaid annually before the Hyde Amendment, but the federal government’s former role in reproductive health services was basically forgotten in contemporary Washington.
In recent decades, Democrats all but ceded the abortion debate to the right. The party’s overpaid consultant class has literally been coaching Democratic candidates to, well, speak like Republicans on abortion or to not speak at all, which many in the party now realize was wrong.
“Lots of people who have run campaigns for the last several decades for Democrats are accustomed to advising their campaigns to pivot away from abortion, to avoid the word ‘abortion,’ and to generally view it as politically risky,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told Raw Story after voting on the Senate floor. “And I think that conventional wisdom needs to be reevaluated.”
That conventional Democratic Party wisdom is how the party got its current slate of octogenarian leaders in the House – all three of whom backed anti-abortion Texas Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar over his progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros, even after the Roe decision was leaked.
Take Nancy Pelosi. She owes her speakership(s) to anti-abortion Democrats. Over protests from many in the party, Pelosi tapped Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) to lead the party’s campaign arm during the 2006 midterms where he orchestrated Democrat’s thumpin’ of George W. Bush and neoconservatism.
The playbook relied on running anti-abortion and pro-gun candidates. It worked. The party netted 31 seats and Speaker Pelosi was born, making history as the first woman to wield the speaker’s gavel.
While the ranks of those Blue Dog Democrats were decimated in the ensuing elections, that Rahm Emanuel playbook is still relied on by many in the party’s consulting community. But, the party’s newly emboldened and progressive wing is calling on party elders to burn that playbook in this new, post-Roe reality.
“It's hard for this whole town to take the conventional wisdom and light it on fire, but that's what they need to do,” Schatz said.
Still, Schatz doesn’t see much of a need for the Washington political class in this year’s congressional races. He wants candidates in the driver’s seat. Schatz doesn’t even want Biden – and the bully pulpit the presidency affords him and his Democratic Party – to get involved.
“What we need from them is to take action through the Department of Justice and Department of Health and Human Services, but I don't think we need them, necessarily, from the bully pulpit standpoint,” Schatz said. “There are plenty of good spokespeople, and my own view is that those spokespeople should be as local as possible.”
Each state is unique, after all. And each has its own abortion history. None, arguably, are more storied than Kansas.
As goes Kansas
Last year, attacks on abortion providers nationwide shot up a staggering 128%. That meteoric rise in physical assaults – including allegations people were pepper sprayed, kicked, stalked, endured a break-in, etc. – is alarming. It’s also a reminder of the not-so-good-ole-days.
Back in 1986, in Wichita, Kansas Dr. George Tiller’s abortion clinic was firebombed.
Five years later, in 1991, “a wave of violence” targeted Tiller’s clinic, along with two sister practices, which resulted in the arrests of more than 2,700 anti-abortionists in Wichita.
Even after Dr. David Gunn was assassinated in Pensacola, Florida just two years later, throughout the rest of 1993, abortion providers nationwide persisted, including Dr. Tiller whose clinic gained national notoriety for being one of just a few nationwide to perform late-term abortions. Three months after Dr. Gunn had his back ripped apart with three shotgun slugs, Tiller was struck with five bullets – all hitting his arms – as he was leaving his clinic. Unlike Gunn, Tiller survived.
Dr. Tiller volunteered as an usher at his local Wichita church. In May 2009, he greeted newcomers with a welcoming smile, ushered them to their seats, and gave them a church bulletin. As the doctor chatted up a fellow regular congregant in the aisle, a religious extremist walked up behind Tiller, steadied his gun at the doctor’s head, pulled the cold steel trigger, and assassinated Tiller. Tiller’s family permanently shuttered his clinic the following week, as the assassin cheered.
Anti-abortion politics have resulted in, or been tied to, anti-abortion violence since before Roe v. Wade. “Violent protest methods (arson, fire-bombings, and vandalism) begin in the early 1970's,” reads a 1996 Department of Justice assessment. The violence hasn’t subsided.
When Republicans took control of Congress in 2010 – and then expanded those majorities in 2014 – the nation also witnessed a historic reshaping of state legislatures. The GOP gained upwards of 900 state legislative seats across the country in that four-year span. So by the time legislative sessions kicked off in 2015, the GOP fully controlled 30 state legislatures, compared with the 11 state capitals where Democrats controlled both chambers. Even as that red, ‘tea party’ wave was sold on the promise of fiscal restraint, newly minted Republican-controlled legislatures took aim at social issues. As always, reproductive rights were top of the list.
As they started to enact stricter and stricter anti-abortion laws – which culminated with this year’s successful challenge of Roe by the Supreme Court – the period also witnessed an uptick in anti-abortion violence.
In April 2012, an explosion rocked a Planned Parenthood in central Wisconsin. Earlier that year, a family planning clinic in Pensacola, Florida was hit with a Molotov cocktail that destroyed the reproductive health center.
Then, in the dark of night in April 2013, a 27-year-old man armed with an ax broke into the Planned Parenthood clinic in Bloomington, Indiana. By the time police showed up at 3:51 am, Benjamin Curell, had poured red paint on the façade of the abortion clinic before he caused “extensive damage” with his ax – breaking computers and windows – according to the Bloomington Police Department who said the attack was driven by Curell’s extreme religious beliefs. After he pleaded guilty, including to breaking a federal law that protects reproductive health centers from attacks like this one, he was fined and given three years probation.
Anti-abortion violence never went away. Rather, in recent years an uptick in violence has been witnessed nationwide.
Democrats now have their proof
Congressional Democrats have been spinning their tires since the Roe decision leaked in May – holding everything from show votes to show marches in front of a fenced-off and empty Supreme Court. That’s why Kansans imbued Democrats with long-forgotten hope.
“It showed overwhelmingly that America does not appreciate the Supreme Court over politicizing constitutional rights to privacy and removing a right to privacy for 50% of the US population,” Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) told Raw Story while walking in the Capitol.
Gillibrand’s also been trying to direct attention to the sweeping implications of the justice’s ruling – repercussions that include our bedrooms, even as they extend far beyond them.
“It's literally a civil right – it's a civil right for 51% of the United States population, and for these right-wing legislatures around the country to say, ‘In order to force the denial of rights to privacy, we're going to restrict your right to travel, we're going to restrict your right to privacy in the mail, we're going to restrict your right to communications’ is beyond anyone's understanding of what the Supreme Court was entitled to look at. So it's shocking,” Gillibrand said. “And the people of Kansas stood up and fought back and were heard.”
Kansas spoke. Democrats nationwide heard them – we’ll find out who listened this fall – but so did many Republicans.
“The magnitude of the difference, that’s more than I would have expected,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) told Raw Story while riding an elevator in the Capitol.
Many Democrats are hoping – and some even predicting – to see an influx of new voters this fall who can help them maintain their majorities. Moran calls that a stretch – “I don’t know how you make that leap” – even as he’s now bracing for an influx of new, energetic voters in this year’s midterms, which he hadn’t expected two weeks ago.
“There’s certainly something there,” Moran said.
Even so, other Kansas Republicans don’t sense any change coming this November.
“We’ll see. Surely, all I hear about when I go back home is the price of gas, groceries, and rent,” Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KS) told reporters at the Capitol the day after more than 900,000 of his constituents voted to preserve abortion as a constitutional right.
It’s still unclear if Republican Party leaders agree more with Marshall or with their senior senator, Moran.
More Republicans, More Violence
Over in Indiana, back in 2015, then-Gov. Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (or RFRA), which barred the government from forcing people or companies to go against their religious beliefs. The LGBTQ community feared the measure would empower employers and landlords to discriminate based on sexuality, and a massive movement emerged. While the RFRA’s passage garnered great fanfare from religious conservatives like Pence, the public – including many corporations – swiftly rejected it as extreme.
Star Trek’s George Takei called for a boycott, Apple CEO Tim Cook took to the Washington Post to write a column ripping the measure, and entire sports leagues – from the NBA to the NCAA – joined businesses and corporations from across the state in opposing the measure and its implications. Indianapolis alone is estimated to have lost at least 12 conventions along with some $60 million.
The state’s Republicans are at it again. Indiana was recently the center of a national debate after a 10-year-old Ohio girl who was impregnated by a molester had to travel to the Hoosier State to get an abortion. Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita proceeded to investigate the doctor, Caitlin Bernard, which drew negative press nationwide. Even so, the state legislature called a special session and rammed through a near-total ban on abortions the same week Kansas voters protected abortion rights.
“The people of Indiana spoke. We did the best we could, you know, our legislators did,” US Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) told Raw Story at the Capitol.
Even as Kansas voters alerted the political class that reproductive rights fall outside the realm of politics, to many Americans, elected Indiana legislators imposed their will on their constituents. It’s almost as if, to many on the left, elected legislators are rushing to pass anti-abortion laws to appeal to the extreme wing of their base, even if they don’t accurately represent the will of their constituents.
“I'm sure they are, and I think this is an example where members of legislatures are out of touch with their voters and the people they purport to represent,” Gillibrand told Raw Story the day after Indiana passed its new restrictive law.
Companies, including pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and engine manufacturer Cummins, raised concerns they won’t be able to attract the workforce they need under Indiana’s new highly restricted anti-abortion measure. Democrats say that’s just the start.
“It's deeply disturbing and it's going to affect whether people want to travel to those states. It's going to affect whether businesses want to do business in those states. It's going to affect whether people can protect their employees in those states,” Gillibrand said. “So these extreme types of laws just undermine the basic right to privacy, and we're a country that believes fundamentally in the right to privacy.”
Even with companies pushing back against another Indiana law, like in Kansas, the state’s elected Republican leaders continue their forward march.
“I thought Indiana [legislators] did a pretty decent job,” Braun said. “It's something to take focus off the real issue, which is the economy and inflation.”
That seems to be the new Grand Ole Party line. Well, at the very least, it’s one now mirrored by most of Braun’s colleagues. That includes Chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee Rick Scott.
“I still think the biggest issue is going to be the economy, inflation, things like that,” Scott, the former Florida governor, said at the Capitol. “But I think this is an important issue to people, and Republicans need to be, you know, compassionate about the issue.”
Compassion is one thing, fear is another. Whichever it is, Kansas voters sent a signal to the GOP.
“Our people need to show up. I don't think elections are going to be determined by Roe v. Wade being overturned, but I do think that Kansas vote turnout was a wake-up call for us,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Raw Story while walking to vote on the Senate floor. “They've done a pretty good job turning people out.”
People turn out when they’re passionate. Up until now, in this year’s election, the most impassioned voters have been Republicans focused on pocketbook issues. Where the passion goes from here is something Republicans, especially in the wake of Kansas, are monitoring.
“It’s obvious in the numbers that there's a lot of passion on the issue, and in Kansas, the pro-choice side was very energized, obviously. And I think that's pretty remarkable, really,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) told Raw Story as she walked to a meeting with other Senate Republicans in the Capitol last week. “I just think we need to pay attention to it.”
Democrats are banking on it
While many Republicans are just starting to pay attention, Democrats predicted this backlash from day one.
“I think Republicans are so out of touch with how strongly women feel about making our own health care decisions,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) told Raw Story at the Capitol. “I think it’s everywhere. I think women around this country – regardless of what decision they would personally make – they know that should be their decision, their faith, their friends, their family, their doctor; not a bunch of politicians.”
Democrats say it’s not going away; rather, it’s just ramping up.
“The energy is here. This is really personal to people. You take away a woman’s capacity to make her own healthcare decisions, and you're playing with fire,” Stabenow said.
Still, other Democrats are preaching caution, for as long as they can.
“I don't think we should read too much into what happened in Kansas, but all it takes is for turnout to be affected on the margins, 2% or 3% and it's a different election,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told Raw Story while riding a tram under the Capitol. “This doesn't need to be a massive change in turnout to have an impact on a lot of these races. These Senate races are going to be decided by 1%, so those races, the extra turnout from people who are concerned about Dobbs could make a difference.”
Democrats have raked in countless millions – at times taking in millions of dollars an hour – since we learned the Supreme Court was overturning Roe v. Wade. The GOP is also flush. But many are predicting campaign cash will prove less important this year than in recent years.
“They can't put this genie back in the bottle, that’s the thing. What are they going to spend more money on? Their problem is not a lack of resources,” Murphy said. “Their problem is an issue that they cannot avoid.”