Religion Unplugged

Sunflower State surprise: 5 takeaways as Kansas keeps right to abortion in Constitution

By Bobby Ross Jr. | Religion Unplugged

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Catholic churches and dioceses in Kansas spent millions of dollars in support of a referendum to remove the right to abortion from the state’s constitution.

But in America’s first big post-Roe test, Tuesday’s ballot measure failed — and by a wide margin — with nearly 3 in 5 voters opposing it.

Given the Sunflower State’s solid conservative credentials, the referendum’s defeat might qualify as Kansas’ second-biggest upset in recent memory (college football fans won’t soon forget No. 1).

What exactly happened? Here are five takeaways:

1. Yes, Kansas has a history of voting for conservative Republicans, particularly for president. But its political leanings are more complicated.

On the one hand, the New York Times’ Mitch Smith and Katie Glueck note:

While Kansas has a history of voting for governors of both parties, the state almost always backs Republicans for president — Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 was a notable exception. It is a largely white state and many Kansans identify as Christians, with a sizable evangelical constituency. Roman Catholic Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., has long been a hero to many conservative Catholics for his ardent opposition to abortion, contraception and gay marriage.

But on the other hand, Kansas State University political scientist Brianne Heidbreder points to Kansas’ political unpredictably dating back to 1861, when it became the 34th state.

Heidbreder spoke to the New York Times’ Maggie Astor:

“While it is a very conservative state, there is a large proportion of the electorate that really considers itself moderate,” Dr. Heidbreder added.

Patrick Miller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas, pointed to a crucial distinction: “We’re more Republican than we are conservative.”

Among the crucial factors in Tuesday’s election: a heavy turnout of Democratic women, many of whom had never voted in a primary election. (Typically, there is no reason for them to vote in the primary as most races only draw one Democrat in GOP-dominated Kansas.)

2. Referendum opponents appealed to Kansans’ belief in individual freedom. That message seemed to resonate across political and rural/urban lines.

Reuters’ Gabriella Borter and Joseph Ax explain:

In Kansas, opponents of the amendment said they emphasized themes of bodily autonomy and individual freedom to win over voters with complex views on reproductive rights. Advertisements leaned into many Kansans’ reluctance to allow the government to intervene in personal healthcare decisions, encouraging voters to “say no to more government control.”

More from Heidbreder’s Times interview:

“Kansas residents are open to appeals from both sides that push back on the idea of government mandates or involvement in people’s lives,” Dr. Heidbreder said. “This idea that government shouldn’t be involved or shouldn’t mandate what you do when it comes to your health care, that it is a personal decision — that’s the philosophy that was really identified by the opponents of this amendment as something that could really take hold with Kansas voters.”

How surprising was this outcome? The ballot measure lost by 18 percentage points in a state that former President Donald Trump, a Republican, carried by 15 points in 2020, the Wall Street Journal points out.

3. Religion frequently plays a role in opposition to abortion, particularly in the Bible Belt. But Kansas is in the Midwest, not the South.

Kansas, where abortion currently is legal in the first 22 weeks of pregnancy, has a relatively high proportion of residents (71%) who describe themselves as very or moderately religious, according to Gallup.

According to the Pew Research Center, 76% of Kansas adults identify as Christian, including 31% who are evangelical Protestant, 24% percent who are mainline Protestant and 18% who are Catholic.

However, experts disagree on whether the state is part of the Bible Belt.

Read the full column.

This column appears in the online magazine Religion Unplugged.

Featured image via Shutterstock

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