How Kansas abortion vote matters — and doesn’t

By Jonathan Bernstein





Tuesday saw some of the last remaining major party primaries of 2022. The headline event of the night wasn’t a primary, however: It was a ballot measure in Kansas, and it was a big victory for abortion rights. Elections can be important because of their immediate effects, or because of how political actors will interpret them — or both. This was both. The immediate substantive effect is straightforward: Kansas voters refused to change the state constitution to say there is no right to an abortion, so the state will remain a haven for abortion rights. And what about the vote’s effects on political actors? It’s likely Democrats, already energized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, will now be even more likely to make reproductive rights a high-profile campaign theme this fall. It’s less clear whether Republicans will back off some of their hardline positions. Republicans who oppose abortion under all circumstances have had the upper hand within the party so far this year. It will be interesting to see whether those with more moderate anti-abortion positions go on the offensive. It’s also hard to say whether the Kansas result predicts much about November. Democrats will point to the size of the victory — close to 20 percentage points — and the huge turnout, especially among Democrats, in a Republican state. What that means for candidate elections, however, is by no means obvious. It’s fair to say the abortion issue is more likely to help than hurt Democrats this fall, but anything more than that is just guesswork. Meanwhile, there were plenty of party primaries between candidates Tuesday. Political scientist Jake Grumbach tweeted a reminder of why these are so important: “Pressure in primaries (not just voting but also $, endorsements, etc.), in large part, is the mechanism by which party position change happens. It’s part of the reason for recent party position change with respect to democracy itself.” Moreover, given the importance of political parties to governing, primary elections are where a lot of democracy actually happens. Here are a few observations about those elections: Trump’s influence over Republican politics is by now clear. The former president’s power over the party’s voters is nothing extraordinary, but his sway over its candidates is strong. Tuesday’s wins and losses filled in some more details. In general, some of Trump’s endorsed candidates in contested races win, especially when the conditions are good for any high-profile endorsement to matter — multicandidate primaries with little to differentiate the candidates. (Trump also helps his win percentage by endorsing a lot of incumbents who don’t have significant challengers, and has also taken to last-minute endorsements for solid leaders in polls.) Yet candidates continue to beg for his endorsement, and in practical terms, that means that a lot of Republican candidates are repeating Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election. Some just refuse to admit President Joe Biden was elected, while others are basically campaigning against free and fair elections. Among Republicans, a vote for impeachment remains controversial. Ten House Republicans voted for Trump’s second impeachment a year and a half ago, and three were on the ballot Tuesday. Representative Peter Meijer of Michigan was defeated for renomination, while two in Washington state appear so far to be surviving, though the vote-counting is slow. Of the remaining seven, four have chosen to retire, one won, one lost and one — perhaps the most prominent, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming — faces Republican voters later this month. Republicans had a mixed record with some potentially terrible candidates. Most notably, disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens lost his bid to become the nominee for U.S. Senate in Missouri. State Attorney General Eric Schmitt defeated Greitens, who might have lost even in that solidly Republican state, which will now be considered safe for the party. The Trump-endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate in Arizona, Blake Masters, did win, so incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly will have an edge in that toss-up state, even in what looks like a good Republican year. The Republican contest for Arizona governor, featuring the Trump-backed former news anchor Kari Lake, remains too close to call. Democrats continue not to be in disarray. Democrats haven’t been able to clear the field everywhere, but they have done so in many high-profile races, and they’re generally making pragmatic choices in highly contested seats. For governor in Arizona, for instance, they nominated current Secretary of State Katie Hobbs by a more than 3-to-1 margin. There’s no guarantee any Democrat will win in Arizona this year, even if Republicans put up a weak candidate. But Democrats are successfully avoiding intense nomination fights and emerging united, usually behind well-regarded candidates. That’s not always been the case, and it remains to be seen whether it makes any difference. But it is certainly a major theme of this cycle for the party. Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.