For decades, abortion was the perfect issue for Republicans: one that they could use to energize “pro-life” voters, and one that would be around forever. What’s more, they ran little risk of alienating “pro-choice” voters, who had little concern that the GOP would ever be able to repeal abortion rights.
Key to this strategy was the assumption that the Supreme Court would preserve Roe v. Wade. GOP candidates and legislators could champion the anti-abortion cause secure in the knowledge that they would not have to follow through in any major way. They could nibble away at abortion rights with waiting periods and clinic regulations, but the fundamental right endured. And their efforts were rewarded with the steadfast support of a bloc of single-issue voters.
But the court dynamited the political landscape when it decided that the reproductive freedom women had enjoyed for half a century was a constitutional abomination. Roe was cast into the depths, and Americans woke up to a flurry of state laws greatly restricting or banning abortion.
How that sits with voters came into focus Tuesday in Kansas, where the state constitution guarantees the right to terminate a pregnancy. Abortion-rights opponents put an amendment on the ballot to revoke it, but the effort went down by a crushing margin of 59% to 41%.
This was a state that Donald Trump won by a landslide twice. Even red-state citizens are recoiling from the new reality. The abortion initiative galvanized a surge in voter registrations and a massive turnout — nearly double the 2018 primary number.
Maybe the outcome should not have come as a surprise. “The vote in Kansas and four other states that had similar ballot measures before Roe was overturned is very much in line with all the national polls from the past several decades that showed roughly 60% didn’t want to overturn Roe,” Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, told me.
The anti-abortion cause has other problems. The first is that however much Americans gripe about the status quo, they often take a dim view of change. The prime example is the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. When it was moving toward passage in 2010, a CNN poll found, 59% of Americans opposed it. In 2014, Republicans captured the House and Senate while promising to repeal and replace it. And in 2016, they won the presidency.
But a funny thing happened on their way to scrapping Obamacare: Public opinion went the other way. By the summer of 2017, a CBS News survey found that 59% of Americans opposed the “repeal and replace” bill. The legislation failed because three GOP senators voted with Democrats. Even in the House, which passed it, 20 Republicans voted no.
Americans generally don’t like the idea of having something taken away from them. With the ACA, they feared losing their existing insurance — which is why Barack Obama repeatedly asserted (falsely), “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” But once the program was in place, those same people feared the consequences of losing it.
In the case of abortion, many Americans had not really considered the possibility that it might suddenly become illegal. When that became a threat and then a reality, they were moved to fight back. And the people most affected by new abortion restrictions — women — were the ones most motivated.
Tom Bonier, a Democratic strategist who teaches at Howard University, notes that after the draft of the Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe leaked, there was a spike in new voter registrations by women — “and a huge jump after the Supreme Court handed it down.” Fully 58% of the early votes in the Kansas referendum were cast by women, which Bonier says is “unprecedented.”
Republicans have done further damage to themselves by doing what politicians often do when they feel emboldened: overreaching. It’s one thing to ban abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. It’s another to ban them all, without exceptions for rape and incest — and with weak protections to protect the health and life of the mother.
When abortion restrictions pose a danger even to pregnant women who fervently want to give birth, or when they inflict cruel suffering on victims of rape and incest, they are bound to provoke a negative reaction — which could have a major impact on the 2022 and 2024 elections.
On abortion, Republicans have sown the wind. The whirlwind they reap could be something to see.
Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveChapman13.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.