As crowds grew in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in the aftermath of a landmark ruling eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion, Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids’ campaign announced that, in Kansas, it would gather the next morning.
The campaign’s goal: to knock on voters’ doors in Johnson County and urge them to vote against a constitutional amendment that would do the same to Kansas’ constitution. The county is home to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Overland Park, which provides abortion services.
In about a month, Kansas will become the first state to vote in a new era of abortion rights — one in which states have the power to ban abortions. And as she faces a tough reelection campaign in a newly drawn congressional district, Davids is leaning into the debate.
In a statement she sent out on the day of the ruling, she called on Kansans to reject the amendment.
“I urge folks to consider carefully what’s at stake,” Davids wrote. “I will always work to protect Kansans’ rights to choose—starting by voting no on the amendment seeking to strip existing protections from our state constitution in August.”
With the court’s decision, the stakes of the abortion debate have changed. Now Democrats are betting — or maybe hoping — that the ruling will invigorate suburban voters the way Donald Trump’s presidency did, boosting their chances in the 2022 mid-term elections, where Republicans are favored to win back the U.S. House.
“The conventional wisdom, for example, says that Sharice Davids was swept into office, along with a number of other suburban women, on a wave of college-educated suburban women who hadn’t been voting in midterms but started in response to the Trump presidency,” said Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University. “The conventional wisdom also says that may drop down now that Trump is out of office.”
But now, polls are showing that abortion or women’s rights are listed as a top priority for voters, particularly among Democrats who support abortion access, according to the Associated Press. And internal polling done in May by the Davids campaign found that 54 percent of voters in the district and 65 percent of unaffiliated candidates generally thought abortion should be legal.
“There’s no denying how active the pro-life people are,” said Jan Kessinger, a former moderate Republican state Representative. “And the pro choice people have sort of sat back and let things happen. We’ll see if this motivates them, to get out and be as active as the pro-life people.”
The new surge in attention on the issue has the potential to shift the dynamic of a race that, until now, has largely focused on the economy.
The suburban makeup of the 3rd Congressional District makes it a bellwether for whether the issue will help Democrats maintain the coalition that helped them win control of Congress and the White House.
While Davids has come out strongly against the constitutional amendment, Amanda Adkins, her likely Republican challenger in November, is being more cautious.
Adkins supports the constitutional amendment and her campaign is framing the amendment as the only thing that will protect restrictions on abortion in the state, a line that’s also been used by the campaign pushing for the amendment.
But when asked about what would happen if the amendment were to pass and the legislature moved to further restrict abortion rights, Anna Mathews, Adkins’ campaign manager, demurred.
“Kansans decide,” Mathews said. “She’d be at the federal legislature and wouldn’t really have a say.”
Adkins served as the campaign manager for Republican Sen. Sam Brownback in 2004. Brownback campaigned as a staunch religious conservative and was one of the leading opponents of abortion during both his time in Congress and his tenure as Kansas governor from 2011 to 2018.
The debate over abortion rights often falls to the extremes — politicians paint their opponents either as radical extremists who want abortion at all costs or radical extremists who want to ban abortion at all costs. The rhetoric in the 3rd Congressional District is no different.
In Kansas Thursday, Davids told reporters the choice was black and white.
“I think that people have a clear choice between someone who believes that people should be able to make their own medical decisions and have the right to access the full range of reproductive health services and someone who has supported some of the most extreme bans on, not just accessing abortion, but accessing that full range of reproductive services,” Davids said.
Davids often hews to the line set by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and they, too, have been painting Adkins as an extremist, part of a larger effort to use abortion as a wedge issue in the November election.
In a press release earlier this week, the DCCC referenced the Kansas Republican Party Platform in 2010 — when Adkins served as chairwoman — to argue that Adkins supports stricter bans on abortion.
The platform included support for a “Human Life Amendment” to the constitution. While there are different versions of the amendment, some go as far as preventing states from legalizing abortion.
“Every human being, born or unborn, has an inalienable right to life which cannot be infringed,” the platform reads. “We believe life begins at conception. The Kansas Republican Party will lead our nation toward a culture that values life—the life of the elderly and sick, the life of the young, and the life of the unborn. All unborn children, regardless of ability, have a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed.”
Asked about Adkins’ stance on a federal ban on abortion access, Mathews said Adkins believes the issue should be left to the states to decide. Conservatives are currently divided on whether there should be a federal ban. Even staunch anti-abortion conservatives, like U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, have said they want to wait before passing a federal abortion ban to see how the laws unfold in the states.
Adkins has attempted to shift the focus on her support for restrictions that are already in the law — parental notification if someone under 18 wants an abortion, restrictions on how late into a pregnancy someone can get an abortion, safety regulations in clinics and opposition to taxpayer dollars going to fund abortion clinics.
Meanwhile, she’s criticized Davids for being a radical when it comes to abortion rights, saying Davids opposes any restrictions on abortion.
“Sharice Davids is so extreme that she has supported taxpayer-funded abortions, opposed life-saving medical care for newborn babies who survived an abortion, and opposes any restrictions on abortion up to the point of birth,” Adkins said in a press release.
Davids campaign declined an interview on the topic. But where moderate Democrats have often been cautious on abortion, particularly those running statewide — see Gov. Laura Kelly’s sidestep regarding the issue in her own race — Davids has always been open about her support for abortion rights.
Her campaigns have been endorsed by abortion rights groups like EMILY’S List.
Last year, Davids was a co-sponsor on an abortion rights bill that passed the House but failed in the Senate.
While advocates of the bill said it codified the Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing the right to an abortion, some Senate Democrats, like U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, took issue with the fact that it banned a number of restrictions on abortion prior to “fetal viability” like required waiting periods.
Proponents of the constitutional amendment in Kansas like Adkins claim the the state’s Supreme Court will do the same to existing restrictions on the practice in the state, gutting some of the more popular provisions the legislature has passed. The 2019 ruling by the court found there is a constitutional right to an abortion in Kansas, but many of the existing restrictions in the state haven’t been challenged yet.
The constitutional amendment is on the ballot in August but voters won’t have to choose between Adkins and Davids until November. So while the amendment may give some indication of how voters are responding to the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s unclear how it would affect the general election.
Kessinger, the former Republican state representative, said he believed voters will only remain emboldened by the issue if the amendment were to pass in August.
“The passion won’t be as hot in November, except if the amendment passes,” Kessinger said. “Then that November race for the legislature or for the governor, I think will really maintain passion for the issue because it would be up to the legislature to pass bills regarding abortion.”
The Adkins campaign said they believe the economy and drug overdoses will be at the top of voters minds in November, rather than abortion. Already, Davids has attempted to insulate herself from criticism about inflation and high gas prices by pointing to proposals and legislation she has supported to relieve prices — most of which have not made it through Congress.
“I think that just because something is a hot button topic nationally doesn’t mean that that’s what’s going to be at the forefront of people’s minds when they go to vote November,” Mathews said.
Still, abortion rights may take on a new significance to voters.
“I think voters understand and are galvanized by this decision, because it’s no longer in the abstract,” said Danni Wang, a spokeswoman for EMILY’S List, an organization which works to elect women who support abortion rights. “They want to do whatever they can to elect leaders that represent their values.”
The Star’s Katie Bernard contributed reporting to this article