What Kansas Means for the Midterms

The surprise defeat of a ballot measure may hold lessons for November and abortion access in other states.

Voters casting their ballots in a gymnasium
Kansas voters casting their ballots on Tuesday. (Nathan Posner / Anadolu Agency / Getty)

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Last night, a primary election in Kansas marked “the first time that voters had a chance to weigh in directly on abortion since the Supreme Court scrapped Roe,” Russell Berman reported. Kansans voted resoundingly against an amendment that would have permitted the state’s Republican-controlled legislature to ban abortion without exceptions. I called Russell today to talk about what the result means for the midterm elections and for abortion legislation across the country.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

“A Tidal Wave”

Isabel Fattal: The article you wrote last night is headlined “The Kansas Abortion Shocker.” What was so surprising to you about this result?

Russell Berman: The surprise in this referendum was how big of a win it was for the abortion-rights side and how big of a defeat it was for the anti-abortion side. The polls, both publicly and privately, were showing a close race. Even when I was interviewing people yesterday, before the polls closed, I was asking them to respond to various scenarios—a close win for the abortion-rights side, a close defeat or a decisive defeat for the abortion-rights side. I didn’t even ask about the scenario that we actually saw, which was essentially a landslide rejection of the amendment and a victory for the abortion-rights side.

Isabel: You note in your article that this result is sure to buoy Democrats’ hopes to “capitalize on the overturning of Roe in the midterm battle for Congress.” Can you explain what the Kansas results might mean—or might not mean—for November?

Russell: We start with a midterms that, based on history and the current political environment with President Biden’s low approval ratings, are expected to be difficult if not downright bad for Democrats. The assumption, frankly both before and even after this result in Kansas, is that Democrats will lose the House. In the Senate, it’s more of a toss-up, but Democrats could easily lose the Senate as well. The big question is, what could change that environment? Democrats had been looking at the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade as the potential savior for them. It’s devastating for the abortion-rights movement, which is core to the modern Democratic Party, but politically, the silver lining would be that it would outrage the public and mobilize particularly younger voters and progressives, who are among the most disappointed in Democratic governance over the past year and a half and in President Biden’s record. That was the hope, and even, among some, the assumption. But until last night in Kansas, nobody had any idea whether that would materialize at the polls.

In Kansas, you saw a tidal wave of turnout by not only Democrats, but independents and some Republicans, who came out in an otherwise sleepy summer August primary to vote down an amendment that would’ve allowed the Republican-controlled legislature to potentially ban abortion.

How does that translate into the fall? We still don’t know. This was a referendum on a confusingly worded ballot question. It was not a choice between two candidates. Many of the independents and Republicans who voted to preserve abortion rights in Kansas yesterday are going to go ahead and vote for Republican candidates in Kansas in November. But Democrats did see that surge in turnout that they will need again in November.

Isabel: Did the specific strategy that the abortion-rights campaign used play a role in its success?

Russell: It’s possible that their strategy did work. They ran a variety of ads, but one of the ads they ran, especially in conservative areas, was really a libertarian-style message, calling the amendment a pathway to a government mandate. It included images of the vaccine and mask mandates that, especially in conservative areas, became quite unpopular during the height of the pandemic. They were clearly targeting voters who were not liberals, progressives, or Democrats, but who might rebel or recoil against an attempt by the legislature to essentially ban abortion and mandate that a doctor could not perform that procedure.

Isabel: Does what happened in Kansas have any bearing on how abortion might be restricted or protected in other states?

Russell: In Michigan, abortion-rights activists are likely to succeed in putting an abortion question on the ballot in November. That’s a very competitive state; there’s a huge governor’s race there, with Democrat Gretchen Whitmer running for reelection. Now, in light of what happened in Kansas, you may see Democrats or abortion-rights supporters—if they haven’t already or if it’s not too late—who are going to try to get this question on the ballot to really draw out people to the polls who want to have a say on abortion.

The Kansas result could also have an impact in nearby states such as Nebraska and Iowa, where Republicans in the legislature have not yet acted to ban or severely restrict abortion but are going to try. The hope of abortion-rights supporters is that this result will put some fear into Republican legislators who haven’t yet enacted these laws, that maybe it’ll slow them down or cause them at the very least not to go quite as far as they might have before this result.


Today’s News
  1. Today, in his defamation trial, Alex Jones admitted that he now believes the Sandy Hook massacre was “100 percent real,” and the lawyer representing Sandy Hook parents said Jones’s lawyer “messed up” and shared with him two years of text messages and emails from Jones’s cellphone.
  2. The Ukrainian military is preparing for a Russian attack on the southern battlefield, where Ukraine has been planning its own offensive.
  3. The legendary Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully died at 94. In 2016, The Atlantic published a tribute to Scully to mark his 67th and final season with the Dodgers.


Evening Read
Illustration of a woman with black bobbed hair and dark-rimmed glasses holding a red book with flowers and bookshelves in background
(Maira Kalman)

The Wedding Present

By Cynthia Ozick

During my very first term of high school, I failed elementary algebra, and as a consequence was doomed to study German. It was 1942, when the war was well under way—the Second World War, for my generation always “the” war, despite all that came after. Mine was a traditional school that claimed old-fashioned standards; today they might be regarded as archaic. Four years of Latin were required, and a choice between French and German … Together with nearly everyone else, I had opted for French. German, especially for a Jewish student in 1942, was a sinister tongue contaminated by its criminal speakers, repellent in its very substance.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
photo of man with dark hair, beard, and tattooed arms wearing sunglasses and dark t-shirt with trees in background
Reservation Dogs co-creator Sterlin Harjo. (Brian Adams for The Atlantic)

Read.Benediction,” a poem by Joshua Bennett.

God bless the lightning / bolt in my little / brother’s hair.

Watch. The second season of FX’s Reservation Dogs, starting tonight on Hulu.

Or check out one of the 10 must-watch indie films of the summer.

Play our daily crossword.

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