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Why conservative Kansas handed victory to abortion rights

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The voters of Kansas have spoken, with nearly 59% of them voting to keep abortion legal in the state. Now, this issue was on yesterday's ballot and closely watched throughout the country, in part because Kansas is the first state to vote on abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this summer.

For a sense of how a state as conservative as Kansas ended up with this result, we're turning now to Dave Helling, editorial writer and columnist for The Kansas City Star. Welcome.

DAVE HELLING: Great to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: Well, it's great to have you. So I want to first start with the results. What have you been hearing about why voters wanted to keep abortion legal in your state?

HELLING: Talking to people who voted no, which was the pro-choice side, there was a common theme of trying to keep the government out of this extraordinarily important decision first. And second, there was real fear after the Supreme Court discarded Roe v. Wade that states like Kansas would indeed impose very strict restrictions on the abortion procedure. And that was something they simply weren't interested in.

CHANG: And we should be clear about the geography of the vote here because, I mean, I guess you would assume this referendum would have been mostly won in the democratic areas of the state. But even in counties where Trump won, the referendum lost. Why do you think that is?

HELLING: Well, first, let's be clear. There aren't many Democratic areas in Kansas, period. It's a very Republican state, a couple of pockets of urban votes. But by and large, for most of its recent history, it's been very Republican - hasn't elected a Democratic senator in almost a hundred years. And so it was a surprise in some ways that some of the more rural counties where we expected a 70-30 vote for yes turned out to be closer to maybe 60-40 or 55-45, which reflects the fact that a lot of Republicans, maybe 80- or 90,000 votes, decided to endorse the no position and guarantee abortion rights in Kansas. That is a surprise. And there's a message there for the Republican Party that even some of its own members are more friendly to abortion rights maybe than most people believe.

CHANG: Well, your editorial board, which you're a member on, it was pretty clear in its writing, and that is, quote, "in a stunning display of common sense, Kansas voters Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have put abortion policy completely in the hands of the legislature and the governor." And then it goes on to say that those who voted no chose to, quote, "trust women." But given the Republican-led legislature, this issue is not going to be over in Kansas anytime soon. So what do you think comes next?

HELLING: Indeed, the legislature is likely to come back in January and try again, in part because the Supreme Court in 2019 did not say that abortion could be unregulated in Kansas, the state Supreme Court. Instead, it said that you have to meet the highest level of scrutiny. But if you can meet that level, you can still have restrictions. And I think the Republicans in the legislature will try to test that theory. And then we're just in for battles in the courts.

CHANG: Before I let you go, I know that you have covered politics in Kansas for - what? - something like more than 40 years?

HELLING: A long time.

CHANG: A long time.

HELLING: (Laughter).

CHANG: So last night's results on this ballot issue, I mean, in the long view that you have, how striking is this moment to you?

HELLING: Well, not so much. You know, one of the first politicians I ever covered from Kansas was Nancy Kassebaum, who was a senator for three terms. She was a Republican. She was pro-choice. There was a time Kansas, in the '80s and early '90s, when abortion politics were much more complicated, that a Republican could be pro-choice and still win election. And so in the contemporary environment, it is surprising. Over the long sweep of Kansas history, it's perhaps not as surprising. There has been and continues to be a little bit of a libertarian streak, which we saw 30 or 40 years ago and seemed to rear its head again in 2022.

CHANG: A libertarian streak saying, government, don't make my decisions for me.

HELLING: Correct. And in this election, the no vote supporters did a pretty good job of framing the vote exactly that way, that this is a vote about freedom and equality and women's rights and not so much about abortion itself. And I think they succeeded in making that argument, and we saw the results.

CHANG: Dave Helling of The Kansas City Star, thank you so much for joining us.

HELLING: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.