Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly wasted no time after a landslide victory in Kansas for abortion rights before sending out a nationwide fundraising email warning that access to the procedure would be “on the billot” if his party did not win the November elections.
But her message to voters at large as she heads into the fall campaign is starkly different, even as Democrats in other states point to abortion access as an issue.
Days after her abortion-related fundraising email, Kelly’s team suggested she would focus her re-election campaign on the state’s now healthy finances, strong public school funding, and high-profile corporate promises to create jobs.
Democrats are divided on whether that’s the best strategy in a tough race against Republican Derek Schmidt, the state’s three-term attorney general. Kelly has yet to win over some independents and moderate Republicans in her solidly red state, and while abortion access may appeal to centrist voters and boost turnout, it’s the economy — and the pinch at the grocery store of inflation – which remains a major concern for them .
“It needs to attract people from all kinds of areas,” said Joan Wagnon, former Topeka mayor, state legislator and chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party. While Kelly can use abortion as an issue to her advantage, Wagnon said, “I don’t think that’s the centerpiece of her campaign.”
Voters on Aug. 2 overwhelmingly rejected a proposed Kansas Constitutional amendment that would have removed abortion rights protections. It was the first state abortion referendum since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
Kelly’s approach as the general election approaches contrasts with the way Democratic governors do. Tony Evers in Wisconsin and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan have made support for abortion rights central to their re-election campaigns. In Ohio, Democratic candidate Nan Whaley is pressing the issue in her race against anti-abortion Republican Gov. Mike DeWine.
Some Democrats believe Kelly is missing an opportunity if she doesn’t follow his lead.
“The only way to inspire young voters, which Laura Kelly needs, is to make them feel like you understand the issues that matter to them right now,” said Christopher Reeves, an activist from suburban Kansas City, consulting and former Democratic National Committee. member. “And the issue that concerns them, especially young female voters, is abortion.”
By winning her first term in 2018 by about 5 percentage points, Kelly appealed to independent and moderate Republican voters alike by portraying herself as a no-nonsense bipartisan leader.
But she was also coming in a good year for Democrats – they regained a majority in the US House – and against conservative Kris Kobach, who has advocated tough immigration policies as the president’s main supporter. of the time, Donald Trump.
Kelly’s stance on abortion rights has got Stephan Simmons, a 25-year-old college recruiter, firmly in her camp for November. Once a conservative Republican became an unaffiliated voter, he became a Democrat shortly before the August 2 election.
He made sure to get back to Kansas City after a business trip in time to get to his hometown of Wichita to vote in person. Along the way, he picked up a friend, Hunter Picard, so Picard could vote in Rose Hill, southeast of Wichita. Picard, a 25-year-old chemist working in Lawrence, is unaffiliated.
Both said they thought of their sisters before voting against the proposed amendment. But Picard said he hasn’t decided how he will vote in the gubernatorial race in November.
Mandi Hunter, a 46-year-old real estate attorney from the Kansas City suburb of Leawood, is a self-proclaimed GOP moderate who voted against the proposed constitutional amendment. She, too, said she was undecided about whether to vote in November, although she noted there will be more than just an abortion on the ballot.
“They can’t ignore the other issues,” Hunter said.
Some Republicans think voters will remain much more focused on the economy than on abortion. Kelly campaigns like she’s okay with it, hosting a “Prosperity on the Plains” tour to promote her administration’s business development efforts.
Kelly campaign spokeswoman Madison Andrus addressed economic and education issues when asked for more details on the governor’s stance on abortion. The campaign wouldn’t say whether Kelly wants more abortion access than is currently allowed, with the state banning most abortions at the 22nd week of pregnancy and imposing other requirements such as a waiting period. 24 hour wait.
Kelly’s staff did not make the governor available to discuss his campaign, but provided a statement on his behalf to The Associated Press.
“The August 2 vote shows Kansans want their government to focus on things like the economy and schools – and not interfere in private medical decisions. Now that voters have spoken clearly, Governor Kelly will remain focused on bringing the two sides together to get results – a balanced budget, lower taxes, fully funding schools and attracting new businesses to the state. said campaign spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald.
Schmidt, who backed the proposed constitutional change, said in a post-election statement that he had never “advocated for a ban” on abortion. He said he supported allowing abortions to save a woman’s life, in cases of rape and incest and when a fetus has a condition “that makes it impossible to survive outside of it.” ‘uterus”.
On Thursday, Schmidt said the referendum result must be “respected”. He said he would not advocate for new, tougher abortion laws, but instead focus on enforcing what is already on the books.
Some political operatives and pollsters argue for a narrow reading of the Kansas vote, as opposing a ban or near-total ban rather than unconditional support for abortion under all circumstances.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in July found that while a majority of people in the United States want Congress to pass a law guaranteeing access to abortion nationwide, a third only said a state should generally allow abortions at 24 weeks. . Just over half would allow abortions at 15 weeks.
Marquette University Law School polling director Charles Franklin said Democrats should run against tough abortion restrictions. “The challenge is,” he said, “how do you do that without sounding like you’re for unlimited abortion rights?”
Pat McPherron, a GOP pollster from Oklahoma City who works for U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said he expects abortion to become an issue.
“It’s a question that voters believe has been asked and answered,” he said. “Voters are moving on.
Abortion rights supporters have acknowledged they are still trying to figure out how to keep their constituents energized until November.
“Frankly, it’s our job to make sure they don’t budge,” said Susan Osborne, one of the leaders of Women for Kansas, a nonpartisan advocacy group that opposed the proposed amendment. . “That was the start of the journey for us.”
Associated Press writers Sara Burnett in Chicago and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.
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