Kansas is known for tornadoes, not earthquakes, although it produced a political one last week when voters rejected – by a margin of 59% to 41% – a constitutonal amendment that would have made it easier for state legislators to ban abortion.
This came as a shock because Kansas is otherwise quite conservative: It’s only voted Democratic seven times in 40 presidential elections, the last time in 1964. It’s only elected three Democrats as U.S. senators in its whole history, the last one in 1932. If there’s any state that symbolizes the Republican Party, it’s Kansas, so much so that writer Thomas Frank used it in the title of his book: “What’s The Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.”
So if Kansas is rejecting an attempt to restrict or ban abortion, what does that say about the rest of the country?
Specifically, what does it say about Virginia?
The New York Times has attempted to answer that first question. It’s taken the election results in Kansas and done some math to try to estimate how a similar ballot initiative would fare in other states. The result: It projects that more than 40 states would vote the same way (in favor of aborton rights), if their voters were given a chance to vote. Not all will be, of course, although you can bet now that Democrats might start pushing for that in some conservative states. The referendum pitch is always alluring: Why not let voters decide? The Times math found only seven states where such a ballot measure to restrict or ban abortion might pass: Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming, and some of them might be close. (A few states rated on the other side might be, too, notably Idaho, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia.)
The Times projects support for abortion rights in Virginia at 65%, a number that runs counter to the legislative reality. Gov. Glenn Youngkin is pushing for a ban at 15 weeks because that’s what he thinks he might be able to get through a General Assembly where Republicans control the House of Delegates 52-48 and need just one vote in a Senate split 21-19 Democratic but with a Republican lieutenant governor ready to cast a tie-breaking vote. The unanswered question: If Republicans retain the House and win the Senate in next year’s legislative elections, would Republicans try to go further than 15 weeks? That seems a fair question for voters to ask. After all, at least two legislators – Dels. Marie March, R-Floyd County, and Wren Williams, R-Patrick County – have both indicated they want to push for a full ban.
That’s not the math I’m going to deal with today, however. I want to take a closer look at the Kansas vote to see what lessons it might hold for Virginia’s legislative elections.
Kansas has 105 counties.
In the 2020 presidential election, just five of those voted Democratic. Statewide, Donald Trump took 56.2% of the vote, Joe Biden 41.6%.
In last week’s referendum, 19 counties voted “no” – and the no side won 58.9% to 41.1%.
Several things are evident from those top-line numbers. The “no” vote came primarily from a relatively small number of places – primarily but not exclusively those around its biggest cities, Kansas City, Lawrence, Manhattan, Salina, Topeka and Wichita.
This fits a national pattern: Metro areas tend to be more liberal. Those five counties in the Kansas City to Topeka to Manhattan corridor were liberal enough to vote Democratic in a presidential election; the other 14 counties clearly were not, but they were obviously liberal enough to reject this measure that would have enabled abortion restrictions.
Politically, those are the most interesting ones – and they raise some fundamental questions about what is “liberal” and what is “conservative.” By The New York Times’ math, 18% of Kansas Republicans voted against abortion restrictions, which suggests the Republican Party is not quite a monolith on the subject at the grassroots, even if its elected officials might be. This makes basic political sense: Those pro-abortion rights Republicans aren’t numerous enough to nominate candidates, but they are still there nonetheless. In theory, these are people who support limited government in all forms – they don’t want government mucking around with lots of regulations on business, and they also don’t want government telling them what they can do with their bodies.
So what were the Kansas counties that voted Republican in 2020 but in 2022 voted against what seems a bedrock article of Republican faith on abortion? Some are counties that had a large city (large by Kansas standards) at its core. Sedgwick County, which includes Wichita, voted 54.7% for Trump in 2020 but 57.8% against the abortion amendment. Saline County, which includes Salina, voted 64.1% for Trump in 2020 but 55.3% against the abortion amendment. That makes political sense; those cities constituted a firm foundaton for the “no” side to build on.
However, The New York Times points out that support for this anti-abortion measure ran well below the usual level of Republican support throughout Kansas: “We can talk about the cities all day long, but Kansas is known as a rural Republican state for a reason: Rural Republican areas cover enough of the state that they can, and almost always do, outvote the cities. The rejection of the amendment has as much to do with lukewarm support in the reddest counties as it does with strong opposition in the bluest ones.”
The math is undeniable although – spoiler alert – I’m going to come to a somewhat different interpretation than The New York Times does.
The Times points to Hamilton County, in western Kansas. In 2020, it was one of Trump’s strongest counties in the state, giving him 81.3% of the vote. But the abortion measure garnered only 55.6% of the vote there. Likewise, Greeley County, another rural county out in the western part of the state, went 85.6% for Trump, but 60.7% for the abortion amendment. The vote dropoff there was certainly substantial.
Other rural counties didn’t move quite as much, though. In 2020, Trump’s best county in Kansas was Wallace County, also out on the western border. Trump took 93.3% of the vote there (a figure so high that it helps answer a question Virginia Democrats sometimes ask: How low can their vote share fall in parts of rural Virginia? Here’s one example. Joe Biden took just 5.3% in Wallace County.). The support for the abortion amendment was 83%. That’s obviously lower than 93.3% but not that much lower. Sheridan County, named for the Civil War general famous (or infamous) in Virginia for burning the Shenandoah Valley, was Trump’s second best county: 88.7%. Support for the abortion amendment came in at 78.2%. I’m not sure I’d call that “lukewarm.”
This brings me to my main observation: Republicans, as a party, might want to be concerned about the political blowback on abortion. But some individual Republicans don’t need to worry at all. We don’t have any counties that vote Republican at Wallace County levels (although Democrats are quite capable of making a 93% Republican vote happen in some places) but we do have lots that now vote 80% or more Republican. If you translate the Kansas results to Virginia, those Republicans don’t need to worry one bit. No Democrat running on an abortion-rights platform is going to threaten any of them.
So which Republicans should worry? Maybe all of them outside 80% Republican counties (details to come). Or maybe none of them. The former is not what Republicans want to believe but the latter is not what Democrats want to believe. Here’s the essential challenge: There are clearly some Republicans – let’s go with The New York Times’ 18% figure – who oppose further restrictions on abortion. However, it’s one thing for them to vote down a constitutional amendment. It’s quite another for them to actually vote for a Democrat – and that’s what Democrats need. They need those pro-abortion rights Republicans to either vote for them or stay at home in 2023. Will they? We don’t know. That’s a much tougher ask. Maybe those Republicans oppose further restrictions on abortion, but does that opposition outweigh their opposition to some of the other things that Democrats might want to do in office? That’s the question. In other words, just how big a priority is abortion for those voters? We don’t know yet. Democrats will benefit next year from an election sharply focused on abortion rights; Republicans will benefit from an election that deals with a broader range of issues. That’s a preview of Virginia’s 2023 elections right there. Democrats: abortion. Republicans: lower taxes. Democrats: abortion. Republicans: more parental control over schools. Democrats: abortion. Republicans: anything else.
Just for the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that Democrats are able to win over some of those pro-abortion rights Republicans. If they do, which Republicans should worry then?
Let’s do this by looking at the 14 Kansas counties that voted Republican in 2020 but against the abortion amendment in 2022. The easiest way to do that is to show the Republican vote in 2020 and the losing, pro-restrictions “yes” vote in 2022, so those votes are on the same ideological side.
|County||Republican presidential vote 2020||“Yes” vote on amendment|
When we look at things this way, things become a lot more encouraging for Democrats because in Kansas, many of those 14 counties that voted Republican in 2020 but voted against abortion restrictions in 2022 were very Republican. Osage County voted 71% for Trump, Greenwood County voted 79% for Trump. Both went against the amendment.
In Virginia terms, Greenwood County at 79% might be politically analogous to Craig County, which went 80% for Trump, or Dickenson County, which went 78.7% for Trump, or Patrick County, which went 78.5% for Trump.
Osage County at 71% might be comparable to Botetourt County, which went 71.5% for Trump, or Alleghany County, which went 71.4% for Trump, or Highland County, which went 71.2% for Trump, or Campbell County, which went 71.1% for Trump.
Whoa. If we’re talking about Republican legislators representing those counties being potentially endangered, then we’re talking about a lot more than an earthquake.
For the record: I believe in math, but I don’t necessarily believe this Kansas math translates to Virginia’s election. Again, the point I made earlier: It’s one thing to vote a certain way in a referendum, it’s another to vote for a candidate from the other party who might vote the way you want on one issue but might wind up doing a lot of other things you might not like. Still, even if they are more informative than they are predictive, these are interesting numbers, to say the least. Both Virginia Democrats and Republicans might do well to understand what happened out in Kansas in Greenwood and Osage counties.
Both of these are very rural counties – Greenwood’s population is 6,016, Osage’s population is 15,766. Is there some demographic reason I don’t understand that drove these results? After all, there were other Kansas counties that voted just as Republican in 2022 and voted for the amendment this time, just at lower levels. What was different in Greenwood and Osage that caused them to vote against it? Democrats will want to understand that so they can try to replicate it; Republicans will want to understand it so they can prevent it. These counties aren’t necessarily outliers in Kansas, either. Allen County voted 71.5% Republican in 2022, not that different from Osage County. The vote on the amendment there was almost split – 50.2% for it, 49.8% against. Some other counties were pretty similar. On the other hand, Ellis County, which voted 70% Republican in 2020, backed the amendment with 57.9% voting yes for restrictions, 42.1% voting against them. Clearly, there was some inconsistency in the vote that would be worth understanding further. Did one side have a better or worse ground campaign in those counties than other places? Were there other local factors we can’t fathom from afar? Or was Kansas as a whole an anomaly because of the way the referendum was worded, which allowed abortion rights activists to frame a “no” vote as a vote against a government mandate?
Even if we toss out Greenwood and Osage as strange outliers, we’re still left with some counties that voted in the 60% range for Republicans in 2022 that couldn’t support this amendment. If we apply that to Virginia, we bring in a lot more Republicans than Republicans would like. The special masters who drew the state’s new legislative districts included a political analysis in their report to the Virginia Supreme Court. Based on previous election returns, only two state Senate districts were rated 70% or more Republican: the one in far Southwest represented by Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and the one from Franklin County to Grayson County where Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, is the incumbent. On the House side, only eight districts are rated 70% or more Republican. Are we really to believe that all the other Republican legislators live in districts where potentially a majority of voters might vote for an abortion rights Democrat? I don’t, but this is the math. Here is more math: Kansas is so polarized that it doesn’t have many counties that voted in the 50% range in 2020. But all the counties that did vote 50% to 59% Republican in 2020 voted down this amendment. If we apply that math to Virginia, then that’s quite sufficient for Democrats to win both chambers of the General Assembly – and some congressional seats this fall, including Bob Good’s seat in the 5th Congressional District. The big “if,” though, is whether voters really will behave that way when faced with actual candidates and not a referendum question. That’s why we hold elections – to find out.