Sharice Davids, the only Democratic member of Congress from Kansas, cheered her state’s vote to preserve abortion rights this week, which defeated a planned constitutional amendment that could have led to new restrictions on the procedure.
She then went a step further, suggesting the issue of abortion would be at the heart of her campaign to defend her seat in the midterm elections against Amanda Adkins, her Republican challenger who backed the measure.
“We rejected extremism and chose a path forward that protects all Kansans’ ability to make their own choices, without government interference,” said Davids, considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, after the results were released Tuesday night.
Since the US Supreme Court in June overturned the 1973 Roe vs Wade precedent establishing a federal constitutional right to abortion, leading to a flurry of draconian new anti-abortion laws in conservative states, Democrats have hoped that they could channel anger at the ruling into better results at the polls in November, where they risk losing control of Congress.
This week’s vote in Kansas has given them much greater confidence that abortion is both energising the Democratic base and bringing swing voters over to their side, changing the political dynamic in their favour.
In a staunchly conservative state that backed Donald Trump for president by a 15-point margin in 2020, the pro-abortion rights side prevailed by nearly 20 points, with voters in urban, suburban and even some rural areas opposing the amendment — along with a jump in Democratic voter registrations.
“We’ve seen in the past a lot of issues before the courts don’t necessarily translate electorally. But this time feels different,” said Eric Schultz, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to Barack Obama.
Democratic candidates across the country have been blasting Republicans for their positions on abortion in recent days, trying to put them on the defensive in races that their opponents hoped to focus squarely on high inflation.
They are seizing on the abortion curbs as the most vivid example of the Republican party’s lurch to the right under the influence of former president Donald Trump and his supporters — and believe the message is starting to gain traction.
“A post-Roe reality isn’t a theory anymore, it’s a reality,” said Kelley Robinson, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
“What Democrats are doing, what politicians are doing, is responding to where people already are. People are fired up, and they are angry — and they’re also motivated to vote on this issue in ways we just haven’t seen before, because we’ve never been in a moment of crisis like this before.”
Democrats are still facing a major struggle in the midterm elections, and it is far from clear that abortion will outweigh president Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and concerns about the cost of living, issues that are giving Republicans an advantage in many races.
It is also possible the Kansas vote was more of an outlier than a signal of a broader shift. Most political observers are still expecting Republicans to win back control of the House and possibly the Senate.
“When people are voting for their member of the House or their senator or their governor, there are going to be some voters who are just thinking about abortion. But other voters will be thinking about a whole bunch of things that are not as favourable to the Democrats — namely how people feel about the economy, how people feel about inflation,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.
Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, a group that helps young Democratic candidates running for office, said the Kansas ballot initiative was different from candidate-specific campaigns. However, it did highlight that a majority of Americans want to preserve access to abortion and how strongly they feel about it.
“I think that it is made it very clear that Democrats and Democratic candidates should feel empowered to talk about abortion and to talk about the freedom for people to make their own healthcare decisions without seeing it as a political liability,” she said. “The Democratic candidates really need to make it crystal clear what the stakes are. They can’t mealy mouth around it. They can’t avoid using the words.”
Democrats have traditionally been reluctant to centre their campaigns on abortion for fear it may seem disconnected from the pocketbook concerns of average households. Even in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling, some were unsure whether to make it a pillar of their messaging.
But many in the party are coming around to the idea that the issue could save them in November.
“Life has changed for people,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic consultant. “And that has implications for these Republicans who have been so obsessed with taking away abortion rights for decades, and they’re going to be held accountable.”