TOPEKA, Kan. – Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly wasted little time after a decisive victory in Kansas for abortion rights before sending out a national fundraising email warning that access to the procedure would be “on the chopping block” if her party did not win in the November elections.
But her message to voters at large as she heads into the fall campaign is dramatically different, even as Democrats in other states stress abortion access as an issue.
A few days after her abortion-related fundraising email, Kelly's team suggested she would be focusing her reelection campaign on the state's now-healthy finances, robust funding for public schools and high-profile promises by businesses to create jobs.
Democrats are split over whether it's the best strategy in a tough race against Republican Derek Schmidt, the three-term state attorney general. Kelly still has to win over some independents and moderate Republicans in her solidly red state, and although abortion access can attract centrist voters and drive turnout, it's the economy — and the pinch at the grocery store from inflation — that remains a big concern for them.
“She needs to pull people from all kinds of areas,” said Joan Wagnon, a former Topeka mayor, state lawmaker and Kansas Democratic Party chair. While Kelly can use abortion as an issue to her advantage, Wagnon said, “I don’t think it’s the centerpiece of her campaign.”
Voters on Aug. 2 overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would have removed protections for abortion rights. It was the first state referendum on abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
Kelly's approach heading into the general election contrasts with how Democratic Govs. Tony Evers in Wisconsin and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan have made support for abortion rights central to their reelection campaigns. In Ohio, Democratic nominee Nan Whaley is stressing the issue in her race against anti-abortion Republican Gov. Mike DeWine.
Some Democrats think Kelly is missing an opportunity if she doesn't follow suit.
“The only way you inspire young voters, which is who Laura Kelly needs, is to make them feel like you understand the issues that they care about right now,” said Christopher Reeves, a suburban Kansas City activist, consultant and former Democratic National Committee member. “And the issue that they care about, especially young women voters, is abortion.”
In winning her first term in 2018 by about 5 percentage points, Kelly wooed independent and moderate Republican voters by pitching herself as a commonsense, bipartisan leader.
But she also was running in a good year for Democrats — they regained a U.S. House majority — and against conservative Kris Kobach, who advocated for tough immigration policies as a major supporter of then-President Donald Trump.
Kelly’s stance on abortion rights brought Stephan Simmons, a 25-year-old higher education recruiter, firmly into her camp for November. Once a conservative Republican turned unaffiliated voter, he became a Democrat shortly before the Aug. 2 election.
He made sure he returned to Kansas City from a business trip in time to drive to his hometown of Wichita to vote in person. Along the way, he picked up a friend, Hunter Picard, so that 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 governor’s race in November.
Mandi Hunter, a 46-year-old real estate attorney from the Kansas City suburb of Leawood, is a self-described GOP moderate who voted against the proposed constitutional amendment. She, too, said she is undecided about her vote in November, though she noted that there will be more than just abortion on the ballot.
“They can’t ignore the other issues,” Hunter said.
Some Republicans believe voters will remain far more focused on the economy than abortion. Kelly is campaigning as if she agrees, staging a “Prosperity on the Plains” tour to promote her administration's business development efforts.
Kelly campaign spokesperson, Madison Andrus, pivoted to economic and education issues when asked for more details about the governor's position on abortion. The campaign would not say whether Kelly wants more abortion access than what is allowed now, with the state banning most abortions at the 22nd week of pregnancy and imposing other requirements such as a 24-hour waiting period.
Kelly's staff didn't make the governor available to discuss her campaign but provided a statement on her behalf to The Associated Press.
“The August 2 vote shows that Kansans want their government focused on things like the economy and schools — and not intervening in private medical decisions. Now that voters have spoken clearly, Governor Kelly will remain focused on bringing both parties together to get results — a balanced budget, cutting taxes, fully funding schools, and attracting new businesses to the state,” said campaign spokesperson Lauren Fitzgerald.
Schmidt, who backed the proposed constitutional change, said in a postelection statement that he has never “advocated for a ban” on abortion. He said he supports 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 the womb.”
On Thursday, Schmidt said the outcome of the referendum has to be “respected" and that if elected governor, he would focus on enforcing abortion laws already on the books.
Some political operatives and pollsters argue for reading the Kansas vote narrowly, as opposition to a ban or a near-total ban rather than unconditional support for abortion in any circumstance.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in July found that while a majority of people in the United States wanted Congress to pass a law guaranteeing access to abortion nationwide, only one-third said a state generally should allow abortions at 24 weeks. A little more than half would allow abortions at 15 weeks.
Charles Franklin, director of Marquette University's Law School Poll, said Democrats should be running against severe abortion restrictions. “The challenge is,” he said, "how do you do that without seeming to be 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 fade as an issue.
“It’s one that voters think has been asked and answered,” he said. “Voters move on.”
Abortion rights supporters acknowledged that they're still trying to figure out how to keep their voters energized until November.
“Frankly, it’s our job to make sure they don’t move on,” said Susan Osborne, one of the leaders of Women for Kansas, a nonpartisan advocacy group that opposed the proposed amendment. “This was the beginning 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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This story has been corrected to reflect that Schmidt, at a campaign event Thursday, did not specifically address whether he would advocate for tougher abortion restrictions if elected governor.