‘Let us live our life.’ Why the Kansas abortion amendment failed in some rural counties

·10 min read

Meetings of the local Democratic Party in deeply Republican Osage County, a largely rural area where Donald Trump won 71% of the vote in 2020, typically draw about a dozen people.

But when Democrats gathered in late June, less than a week after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, more than 60 people showed up. On the agenda was the proposed amendment removing the right to an abortion from the Kansas Constitution.

Ann Mah, a Democratic member of the Kansas State Board of Education whose district includes Osage County, spoke to the crowd, describing the ballot question as a fight over government power.

“The amendment was really not about whether or not you approved of abortion, but who was in control of making the decisions for women’s health,” Mah said, recounting what she told the meeting.

“If you wanted to turn your daughter’s health care over to the state legislature, then you voted yes. And if you trusted women to make their own decisions you’d vote no.”

On Tuesday, Osage County voted down the amendment, 56% to 44%. More than 45% of its 11,900 registered voters cast a ballot.

Statewide, the amendment went down in a landslide defeat, losing 59% to 41%. Voters in big, urban counties such as Johnson, Sedgwick and Wyandotte overwhelmingly rejected the measure.

But a number of small, rural counties also voted it down, surprising both supporters and opponents.

Additionally, in a large number of other rural counties, the amendment won but by unexpectedly narrow margins. The amendment won by just 10 votes in Seward County, a southwestern Kansas county of under 22,000 along the Oklahoma border, according to unofficial results from the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office.

Cynthia Lash, chair of Osage County Democratic Central Committee, said she believed the amendment would win locally. Looking back, it’s now clear something big was happening.

“I got tons of emails and texts from people I had never heard of. I don’t know that they were all Democrats and we didn’t care,” Lash said.

The Star spent time in Osage and Franklin, two counties where the amendment lost that are directly south of Topeka and Lawrence, speaking with people who live and work there to better understand its soft support in rural areas. The newspaper also interviewed activists, legislators and residents from rural areas across the state.

What emerges is a portrait of rural Kansas more textured than the caricature of a conservative monolith that is sometimes presented to the world.

While these places are undeniably conservative – Osage and Franklin counties haven’t supported a Democrat for president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 – a libertarian strain runs through them. Many residents are naturally suspicious of government power, which amendment opponents spoke to by warning of mandates and encroachments on freedom.

These rural areas are also places where moderates and liberals live, even though their presence is often masked by an overwhelmingly dominant Republican Party. When the amendment became an issue, they suddenly gained visibility in a way that the effective one-party control normally obscures.

In Franklin County, Republicans make up more than half of all registered voters. Just under 19% of voters are Democrats. About 28% are unaffiliated.

However, the actual number of people who are effectively Democrats is higher, local residents say.

“I think what shocked me the most is finding out how many Democrats there are who are hidden who are afraid to come out as Democrats,” said Eileen Spickler, who co-owns Granda Barry’s Guitars in downtown Ottawa in Franklin County.

Angie Hooper co-owns Roasted Cafe, a diner a couple blocks away. In the run up to Election Day, Hooper had a 6 foot by 4 foot sign made that said “women are not breeding cattle.”

Hooper, who recently allowed the county Democratic Party to set up shop for the fall in another part of her building, didn’t seem shocked the amendment failed. The people who were surprised, she said, were “mainly only the men and the very old and religious.”

Yard signs common before vote

While neither the Osage County Democrats, nor Republicans went door-to-door campaigning, Lash said Democrats got at least 150 “vote no” signs into yards. Many were requested by people who the party had never heard from before.

A drive through Osage and Franklin counties on Thursday after the vote revealed many “Value Them Both” signs – as the pro-amendment campaign was called – but also plenty of “vote no” signs, too.

It is a truism in politics that signs don’t vote, but the willingness of residents to put up “vote no” signs in rural, conservative areas pointed to the intensity of feeling among opponents.

“I think even something like the yard signs, there’s a little bit of a social cost, conceivably, to that,” said Steven Foulke, a professor of history at Ottawa University, a private Baptist university located within the city.

Foulke called the local opposition effort an “unprecedented grassroots campaign.” Franklin County voted down the amendment, 56% to 44%.

“I was just flabbergasted with the signs – the ‘no’ signs – I saw in my neighborhood of people who really I don’t think would define themselves as political and certainly people you never see a yard sign in their yard, ever,” Foulke said.

The amendment scrambled typical party-line divides in rural areas. Because of the registration advantage Republicans hold in many of these counties, it is all but certain that in some areas a sizeable portion of Republicans voted no.

Dana Webber, chair of the Osage County Republican Central Committee, said residents received anti-amendment mailers sometimes once or twice a week, including some saying it could mean more government mandates.

That phrasing was intentional on the part of opponents, who were tapping into lingering anger over early pandemic restrictions and mask mandates.If it had passed, the amendment would have given the Legislature the power to ban or severely restrict abortion.

“I believe that there was much misunderstanding because I know multiple people who contacted me or others who have asked what it actually said before they voted because they didn’t understand what it meant,” Webber said. “They didn’t know whether to vote yes or no and they’re pro-life and they claim to be pro-life.”

The Value Them Both Coalition, the main group in support of the amendment, said — correctly — that the amendment itself didn’t directly ban abortion. But the group and amendment supporters nearly always refused to answer questions about whether they ultimately wanted abortion banned in Kansas just as it had been in neighboring Missouri and Oklahoma.

The lack of specifics allowed opponents to raise the possibility the GOP-controlled Legislature would move quickly to pass a ban if the amendment was adopted. It may have also left even some anti-abortion voters unsure of what the amendment actually did.

State Rep. Eric Smith, a Burlington Republican who represents parts of Osage and Lyon counties, said he encountered people across the ideological spectrum who “didn’t trust the amendment.”

Even hardcore conservatives, he said, told him they would vote no because of concerns that it would result in a ban on abortion that would risk a pregnant woman’s life if there were complications.

How they voted

This gradient map shows how strongly counties went for either "no" or "yes on the abortion vote. Many counties throughout the state had closer margins than expected. These results are unofficial until certified by the Kansas Secretary of State's Office and could change as provisional and late-arriving mail ballots are processed.
Click on the icon in the upper left corner to minimize the legend panel.

Open

The amendment said the Kansas Constitution doesn’t create or secure a right to abortion. It also said legislators “may pass laws regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, laws that account for circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or circumstances of necessity to save the life of the mother.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court in June gave states the power to ban abortion, the wording meant the amendment would explicitly empower the Legislature to prohibit abortion in those cases.

“I don’t know why we included the language in there about rape, incest and a mother’s health,” Smith said. “The conversation has to lead up to the idea that the majority of people in the Legislature, that the vast majority, do not believe that a total ban on abortion is a proper thing to do. We need to make sure that the language reflects that clearly.”

Young people were active

Even as confusion and uncertainty played a role in nudging some rural residents to vote no, opponents also conducted a massive persuasion campaign that rivaled, and perhaps exceeded in some places, the effort statewide candidates put into winning votes. A key part of that outreach was driven by young people.

Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, lead organizer for the Southwest-Kansas based New Frontiers Project, said he hadn’t planned to get involved in the amendment fight. The end of Roe v Wade changed that.

“People were really angry,” said Rangel-Lopez, a Dodge City native. “They wanted to organize.”

He began hearing from young Kansans who had never been politically engaged before but who wanted to do something. They organized rallies, marched in parades, canvassed and phone banked.

Jennifer Benitez-Chavez, 19, and Marilu Rodriguez, 20, both of Garden City, said in a joint interview they held two rallies. What began as a group text with dozens of people eventually grew into an organized anti-amendment effort.

“What I thought was just really crazy was they really are just making us have babies out here … it was crazy to me that they were possibly going to have that power over us,” said Benitez-Chavez.

Finney County, where Garden City is located, only narrowly supported the amendment — 52% to 48%.

State Sen. John Doll, a Garden City Republican with a moderate streak, said he believed there was a lack of trust in the Legislature within his district. He described his constituents as “Eisenhower Republicans” who reject extremist ideas.

And they want less government, not more.

“That probably played as much a role as anything is government getting into our business, the Legislature taking control of something,” Doll said. “We’re the nicest people in the world. But don’t put restrictions on us. Let us live our life.”

Looking ahead to November

In Osage County, Lash and her fellow Democrats have been taking stock of the outcome of the amendment vote and preparing for the November election. Even though Democrats hope to harness momentum from the failure of the amendment, neither party expects a sudden, significant shift in loyalty among rural voters.

Mike Kuckelman, chair of the Kansas Republican Party, said he wasn’t worried about the amendment results in rural counties. Tuesday’s vote, he said, represented a “perfect storm” for abortion rights advocates, and one that wasn’t likely to strike twice.

“I would expect that our counties that have traditionally been red will continue to be red,” Kuckelman said.

Lash believes the results of the amendment vote show there’s room for the party to grow in the county, even as she acknowledges a lot of people who voted are unlikely to remain active in politics and that she doesn’t expect many Republicans to begin voting for Democrats.

Moving forward, Lash stressed the importance of Democrats in her area remaining visible.

“Just to say, ‘hey, there are Democrats here and if you’re a Democrat you are not alone,” she said.