Kansas abortion vote raises warning signs for GOP nationwide in November. Will issue eclipse economy?

The high turnout in the Kansas abortion vote was a warning sign for Republicans in the November midterms who have counted on a flagging economy being the most motivating issue for voters.

  • Republicans, Democrats and independents voted to protect abortion rights in a state Trump carried
  • The Kansas vote is the first to capture voter sentiment since Roe v. Wade was overturned
  • The economy could be a deciding factor in November, but the Kansas vote shows Roe is a game-changer
  • A few special elections in August will also measure the impact of the Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs

WASHINGTON – Kansas voters turned out in droves Tuesday and shook up the nation's political landscape when they issued the first ballot response since a Supreme Court ruling in June sent the abortion issue back to the states.

One of the most conservative states voted to protect abortion access, which has been threatened by the high court's landmark decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the case nearly five decades earlier that had established abortion as a constitutional right.

The primary vote in Kansas, where the robust turnout was more in line with a general election for governor or president, was a litmus test and warning sign for Republicans counting on the flagging economy being the issue that will motivate voters most in the midterm elections in November.

Decisive outcome:Kansas upholds right to abortion in first Roe referendum

As Democrats double down on their abortion messaging in midterm races and Republican strategists retool, here are highlights from the Kansas abortion vote: 

  • What they voted for: Kansans gave a resounding "no" – 59% to 41% – to a ballot question that essentially asked whether abortion rights should be stripped from the state constitution, clearing the way for lawmakers to impose more regulations and restrictions. The state allows the procedure up to 22 weeks of pregnancy. Voting "yes" would have been in line with lawmakers and advocates who wanted to overturn a state Supreme Court ruling in 2019 that upheld abortion rights and ensure the Kansas Constitution no longer protected abortion. 
  • Brisk turnout: Primary turnout in a midterm year usually hovers between 30% and 40% in Kansas. Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican, said early Tuesday evening that turnout was on track to be 63%. Voters of various ages in both parties – including staunchly conservative areas President Donald Trump carried by double digits in the 2020 race – chose to support abortion rights. The turnout was more impressive considering the state doesn't allow mail-in voting or much early voting. 
  • Caveats: The result captured voter sentiment for the first time since the Roe decision, but the narrow question asked didn't show the many nuances of the abortion issue. Polling shows the majority of voters say abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, not any circumstance, and voters want exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother. The economy will be another big caveat for November – especially if it worsens. 

Court in question:Ruling overturning Roe v. Wade sparks debate about Supreme Court's legitimacy amid partisan passions

What the Kansas abortion vote means

Calley Malloy, left, of Shawnee, Kan.; Cassie Woolworth of Olathe, Kan.; and Dawn Rattan, right, of Shawnee, Kan., applaud during a primary watch party on Aug. 2 in Overland Park, Kan.

If the turnout in Kansas is replicated across the country in November, it would benefit Democrats, who count on the Roe reversal to improve their odds this fall. The party faces headwinds that include high consumer prices, President Joe Biden's low approval numbers and a historical record that shows midterms typically go against the sitting president's party.

The Kansas vote offers the first sign that Democrats could be right about the Roe decision being a game changer.

Jarrolyn Quinones, 65, a paralegal, was "stunned" by the vote in her home state, she told USA TODAY late Wednesday morning.

As a Democrat in conservative Kansas, she thought she might be on the losing end of the referendum.

Midterm momentum:Concern about abortion explodes among Democrats, fueling a push to vote

Her polling place in Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita, the state's largest city, had a lot of posters outside for the anti-abortion campaign, she said. 

The results taught her something: The abortion issue cuts through partisan politics. Women who feel the same way she does about abortion rights might not have signs in their yard or be from the same political party, but they were silently aligned at the ballot box. 

"Women understand their rights are being taken away ... and if they don't act, we will be back in the 1950s," Quinones said. "Regardless if women have different political beliefs or different religious beliefs, they agree they want the right to make their own choices."

Sedgwick County, where she lives, voted 58% to 42% to protect abortion rights in Kansas. Trump won the county by nearly 12 percentage points over Biden in 2020.

Poll:Furor over Roe v. Wade reversal probably won't rescue Democrats in midterm elections

Many voters are too young to have lived when Roe wasn't the law of the land. 

Quinones remembers life before Roe and wants to protect abortion access for her family. 

"My life would be entirely different if Roe wasn't in existence," she said. "I don't want to have my granddaughters growing up in a world where they don't have a choice."

A deeper look:Chief Justice Roberts wanted to go slow curbing Roe v. Wade. His colleagues were in a hurry.

What's at stake

State Rep. Stephanie Clayton, D-Overland Park, reacts to election returns on an abortion referendum Aug. 2 at the Overland Park Convention Center in Kansas. Voters protected the right to abortion in their state, rejecting a measure that would have allowed their Republican-controlled Legislature to tighten restrictions or ban the procedure.

The midterm elections in November will decide which party controls Congress.

Democrats control the White House and, narrowly, the U.S. House and Senate. 

Republicans have a strong chance to take back the House and could take back the Senate, which is split 50-50. Vice President Kamala Harris, a Democrat, is the tiebreaking vote. 

Tuesday afternoon, before the Kansas vote, Harris reminded supporters, "We can make a difference in the outcome of the midterms.

"We are seeing extremist, so-called leaders around the country at a local, state and federal level who are pushing an agenda that is about the restriction of rights instead of what we are supposed to stand for, which is about progress and the expansion of rights," she said. "We know what we stand for, so we know what to fight for."

Democrats have a voter registration advantage in some battleground states. For example, the Senate race in Pennsylvania between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz could determine which party controls the upper chamber of Congress. 

The Kansas vote indicates Republican women may support candidates who back abortion access, regardless of political party. 

"This vote makes clear what we know: The majority of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and should have the right to make their own health care decisions," Biden said in a statement late Tuesday.

However, the president and his party could be judged in November by the economy. 

Inflation hit a 40-year high of 9.1% in June, and economic forecasts suggest it will remain high in the fall when voters go to the polls. 

Analyst Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Wednesday afternoon that the Kansas vote was just the beginning of this month's primaries.

He pointed to special elections in Minnesota on Aug. 9, Alaska on Aug. 16 and New York on Aug. 23 as races to measure the impact of the Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization that overturned Roe.

"Although Kansas sent a loud message, the final margins in upcoming special elections ... will be much more instructive of the post-Dobbs environment for the fall," he said. 

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Candy Woodall is a Congress reporter for USA TODAY. She can be reached at cwoodall@usatoday.com or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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