Democrats And Republicans Take Lessons From Kansas Abortion Vote : The NPR Politics Podcast This episode is available to everyone, though on some platforms there may be a short delay in availability between the version for subscribers (which is sponsor-free) and non-subscribers (which includes sponsor interruptions). Thank you for your patience!

Both major parties were surprised, for different reasons, by the results in this month's referendum in Kansas that could have ended the right to an abortion by amending the state constitution. What can Democrats and Republicans take away from the Kansas vote as they craft their messaging strategies for November's midterms?

This episode: voting correspondent Miles Parks, political reporter Barbara Sprunt, and congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell

Learn more about upcoming live shows of The NPR Politics Podcast at nprpresents.org.

Support the show and unlock sponsor-free listening with a subscription to The NPR Politics Podcast Plus. Learn more at plus.npr.org/politics

Connect:
Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org
Join the NPR Politics Podcast Facebook Group.
Subscribe to the NPR Politics Newsletter.

Democrats And Republicans Take Lessons From Kansas Abortion Vote

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1116770982/1116792265" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hey there. It's Tamara Keith from the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, and I am so excited because we are getting ready to go back out on the road. And Houston, you're up first. Join Susan Davis, Asma Khalid, Ashley Lopez, Domenico Montanaro and me at Zilkha Hall on Thursday, September 15. You can find more information about tickets, including for students, at nprpresents.org. Thanks to our partners at Houston Public Media. We hope to see you there.

CHARLES SNOWDEN: Hi. This is Charles Snowden, defensive end for the Chicago Bears.

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Whoa.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Whoa.

SNOWDEN: Right now, I'm in the middle of training camp, fighting for a job. Last year, I was on the practice squad and only played in two games. This year, I'm hoping to make the 53-man active roster. This podcast was recorded at...

PARKS: 1:09 p.m. on August 10, 2022.

SNOWDEN: Things may have changed by the time you hear it, but I will be out here in Chicago competing my tail off. Enjoy the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

PARKS: Wow.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Oh, my gosh. Good luck, man.

SNELL: My hometown team - good luck.

PARKS: Yes, seriously. Good luck. That is so exciting. I just got the biggest smile on my face.

SPRUNT: I know, I know.

SNELL: (Laughter).

PARKS: Oh, and I hear Charles is a big listener. So thank you, Charles. We appreciate you, man.

SNELL: Awesome.

PARKS: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

SPRUNT: I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover politics.

SNELL: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

PARKS: And today, we're going to talk about what is quickly becoming the political story of the year - abortion. On Friday, Indiana became the first state in the U.S. to pass a new ban on abortion since the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. A number of other states already had trigger laws - abortion bans that went into effect after the decision. But, as we've talked a lot about on this podcast, abortion rights are broadly popular with most voters, and abortion rights supporters just scored a win in Kansas, of all places.

Barbara, you've done some great reporting on this issue. Can you remind us what happened in this referendum on abortion rights in Kansas recently?

SPRUNT: Yeah. So they rejected a proposal that would have opened the door to the state making changes to abortion access. And over 900,000 people in Kansas cast a ballot. That's a level of participation that blows past primary turnouts completely out of the water. It almost approaches the turnout rate in the general election in 2018, which is pretty wild because turnout trends show that way less people come out to vote in primaries, typically. I talked to Tom Bonier. He's the CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, and he talked a little bit about the scope of what happened.

TOM BONIER: When you analyze data, you tend to get excited when you see movement from the norm by, you know, maybe five or six points. That's telling you that there's something meaningful happening. And in this case, what we saw was something outside of the norm by 20 points.

SPRUNT: And so he looked at voter registration numbers before and after June 24, which is when the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, and 70% of new voter registrants after that date in Kansas were women. You compare that to the same period of time in the last election cycle two years ago, it was pretty evenly split between men and women - the new voter registrants. So that's a huge data point on its own.

And another really big one that everyone is talking about is young voters. Over half of the people who registered to vote after that date - the court's decision - were under the age of 25. And as we might remember, if we can cast ourselves back to 2018, the so-called blue wave that we saw was fueled by a lot of young voters. So now, the question that a lot of people who look at data - a lot of strategists, a lot of people in politics - are looking at this and saying, could we see something similar with women and with young people this fall?

SNELL: You know, I think that's really interesting, Barbara, because we are - we're not often in a situation where we can watch voter registration respond directly to the news. And this is one of those kind of rare cases. And I wonder if it's going to be easy for people who watch these things to replicate as other news starts to intervene and other things that people care about start to be kind of - kind of become part of the bigger motivating factors in the way people vote.

PARKS: Yeah. The other thing that I'm curious on your thoughts on, Barbara, is we know that this was a huge driver of turnout in Kansas.

SPRUNT: Right.

PARKS: Will that be the case in other states across the country?

SPRUNT: This surprised strategists on both sides of the aisle. I mean, Republicans do have a substantial voter registration advantage in the state. It's also a state that former President Trump won by 15 points just two years ago. So numbers-wise, I mean, this shows that people who are not registered Democrats voted against the possibility of curbing abortion rights. So, you know, one Democratic strategist that I talked to said this sort of helps prove the notion that abortion rights is an issue that can peel off unaffiliated, independent and Republican voters in the midterm elections.

But there's also something to be said about generalizing what happened in Kansas and taking it as gospel for what's to come in November. That's not necessarily very smart politically. I mean, every state has its own very unique races, candidates, ballot initiatives - there's a record number of those this year - and the way that they message this and the makeup of voters. So there's some caution out there about taking what happened in Kansas as entirely prescriptive as what's to come.

PARKS: Well, Kelsey, what have we seen from Democratic members of Congress who are kind of gearing up their campaigns, looking ahead to November? How much are they kind of bringing abortion to the forefront of their campaigns?

SNELL: I think it kind of depends on the Democrat. I would say that most Democrats believe that this is an issue that is motivating for their voters and on which the public agrees with them. If you talk to virtually any Democrat, they will say that public polling shows that America is on their side. That's the phrasing they often use. But I will say that it is not always the most important motivating factor for individual members. So you will often hear them say - you know, they will talk about it as it comes up with voters, or it will be part of their overall message in, say, a town hall. But that - other things, like curbing inflation or talking about the economy or talking about all of the things Congress has done - sometimes that is just more effective in the moment and in the district or in the state where they're working.

PARKS: President Biden and Vice President Harris have both kind of gone out of their ways over the last couple of weeks to basically say, if you care about abortion rights after this Supreme Court decision, the best way you can make your voice heard is to vote. And they've taken a lot of criticism from people on the left for that kind of line of thinking that, you know, you just got to go out and turn out in November. I know you turned out in 2018 and 2020, but you got to do it again. You got to keep doing it. But will that line of messaging placate the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party?

SNELL: One of the things that I have heard from a lot of elected Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren, who is about, you know, one of the more progressive members of the Senate, is that she had said to me when I spoke to her a week or so ago that she felt like Republicans have run a long game, much longer than just a few elections. And Democrats have to keep in mind that it isn't about one election; it's about several elections. It's about, you know, in some cases, decades of political groundwork and continuing to show up and continuing to push a message in order to continually be successful and to make big, long-term wins.

PARKS: OK. Let's take a quick break. And when we're back, we're going to get more into the question of how abortion rights are going to play into this fall's midterms.

And we're back. Barbara, you also talked to Republican strategists about the Kansas vote. What did they have to say? And what was their reaction?

SPRUNT: Yeah. I heard from folks who think that this is a wake-up call for Republicans and for those who want to curb abortion rights about messaging in particular. They point out that most voters are in the middle, meaning most voters aren't comfortable with not having any exceptions for abortion in the case of rape or health of the mother. They're not comfortable with the talk about total abortion bans, which has sort of leaked into the national conversation about abortion rights broadly. And the way that primaries are now, some candidates are sort of jockeying to be the most conservative voice in the primary, and that's not necessarily where a lot of their constituents are.

And so I heard from strategists and advocates who say that they want Republican candidates to be explicit about their views on abortion, to not shy away from talking about when they believe exceptions should be made and to get ahead of other issues that Democrats are trying to connect with being anti-abortion rights; so like overturning rights to same-sex marriage, contraception. The folks that I talked to said if candidates don't define their positions for themselves, then Democrats will do that for them. And it may not be representative of where they personally are.

PARKS: Kelsey, how are we seeing this play out with Republican congressional candidates? How are they kind of approaching the abortion issue?

SNELL: There is not really a central message from Republicans on this, I think in part because as much as, you know, Democrats may decide not to maybe make this front and center of their conversations, they have an agreed and central kind of message about the right to an abortion. Republicans, you know, messaging on abortion is very different from race to race.

It's been interesting to me to see the way Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has approached this. He's offered kind of a whole different range of answers, going from basically saying he doesn't think that the Senate would approach any kind of abortion ban if Republicans take over the Senate to also kind of avoiding the question and saying that this is about state legislatures now and it's a question for the states. So I actually hear that argument the most. I often hear of federal office seekers, Republicans, kick it back to the states, saying this is up to states to decide.

PARKS: It does feel like, Kelsey, that - over the last couple months, I've heard from a lot of Republicans that the winning strategy in November is going to be talking about inflation and talking about Joe Biden. And am I correct in feeling like this is just another way that this gets harder for Republican candidates to do that?

SNELL: It is. You know, though, I will say that Republicans I talked to say they can talk about inflation and they can talk about Joe Biden because those are the issues that are inside of people's homes most pressingly. And they think that that is true. They think that people are watching their pocketbook much more than they're watching social issues like abortion. Democrats feel very differently about that and would point out it's not always clear or very public if somebody views abortion as a major issue for them or if someone in their life has had an abortion. That's not something that is as openly discussed as inflation. So it's very hard to measure some of that.

SPRUNT: Yeah. To Kelsey's point, I mean, when I was talking with folks about this, they said, like, this could be an issue that what you say to a pollster might very well be different than when you go to vote. And even though inflation and the economy still consistently rank high in terms of what issues are on the minds of voters, it is possible that, you know, the numbers are a little askew in terms of when people go to, you know, the ballot box and make a decision that could be quite personal to them, you know, does it reflect a little differently?

PARKS: Kelsey, in 2016, I feel like Democrats ran on this idea that - you know, trying to draw a huge distance between them and Donald Trump. We saw that again in 2020. But this year, there have been a fair amount of legislative victories, potentially, in the next couple of months, some more coming down the road. Do you see Democrats focusing more on those victories or continuing to kind of point at Republicans and say, you know, we're not them; they're trying to take away your rights? I guess, which of those tactics do you think we're going to see more of over the next couple months?

SNELL: Democrats are really trying to do both. You know, House Democrats went out on their annual August recess with a kind of guidance document from leadership about, you know, ways to talk about themselves, to talk about the party. It's something that leadership does every time that members go out and have time to kind of speak with constituents. It's kind of - give them talking points, ways to talk about the things they've been doing. And the one that went out with them this time was called "People Over Politics." And there are - the framing is that Democrats are for the people, and extreme MAGA Republicans are for their own power. And so they're trying to do a little bit of both.

Part of that is they are touting things like inflation, you know, coming down, and people's gas prices are coming down, and all of the things that have passed like this CHIPS Act, which will increase semiconductor production in the U.S., and the Inflation Reduction Act that is looking like it's going to pass the House on Friday. And they compare it to Republicans who they say are criminalizing women's health care - that's the phrase that they're using - and, they say, including birth control. And they then tie that to marriage equality. They also talk about ways that Republicans are talking about making changes to Social Security and Medicare. So they're trying to do both of those things at the same time. They're trying to say, we have delivered what we can for you. And if you don't let us keep going, this is the consequence.

PARKS: All right. Well, we'll leave it there. And we'll be monitoring this issue, obviously, looking ahead to November's midterms.

I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

SPRUNT: I'm Barbara Sprunt. I cover politics.

SNELL: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

PARKS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.