Even some GOP voters in Kansas support abortion. But Gov. Laura Kelly rarely talks about it

By: - October 25, 2022 12:14 pm

Ashley All, spokeswoman for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, gives a speech following Kansas voters’ decision to protect abortion rights. Tens of thousands of GOP voters made the vote a resounding victory for abortion rights supporters. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

It would be easy to assume Elaine Gail doesn’t support abortion rights.

She’s a lifelong Republican whose parents worked for Republican campaigns in Kansas. She traveled with “Dolls for Dole,” a group of costumed young women who sang at campaign stops for the late Sen. Bob Dole, who once supported a Constitutional amendment to ban all abortion, though he later softened his position to allow some exceptions.

But at 68, she’s old enough to remember seeing her high school classmates struggle with unplanned pregnancies. One hid her pregnancy to avoid being kicked out of school.

“She was wearing the coat all the time to kind of hide it,” said Gail, a retiree who lives in Topeka, “and one of my classmates had this great idea that we would take turns wearing coats to class, too, kind of in solidarity and … we were hoping to divert suspicion from the teachers.”

Gail graduated high school two years before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision. Watching her friend hide her pregnancy and seeing two other classmates go away to give birth and put their babies up for adoption helped shape her views on abortion.

She’s one of tens of thousands of Republicans — at least 20% of Republicans who turned out in August — who voted “no” this summer on an amendment meant to remove the right to an abortion from the Kansas Constitution. Across Kansas, counties where President Donald Trump won by double digits were split on the issue of abortion. “Deep red” Kansas voted 59% to 41% to uphold women’s right to choose, stunning the nation.

“No” voters were supportive of keeping abortion rights in the constitution. A “yes” vote was in favor of removing the right.

Much of the “no” vote came, of course, from Democrats and vocal supporters of abortion rights. But Democratic ballots alone wouldn’t have been enough to kill the amendment.

To reach the total number of votes cast against the amendment, at least 91,000 Republicans would have had to vote no. And that’s assuming every Democrat and unaffiliated voter opposed the amendment.

Some did so quietly for fear of alienating loved ones, friends or church communities. Others, like Gail, were more vocally upset with her party. And she plans to cast her vote for Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, in her reelection bid against Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt next month.

Despite the mandate on abortion rights from Kansas voters this summer, abortion has not been a centerpiece of either candidate’s campaign. Schmidt has been more cautious about abortion. Despite petitioning the Kansas Supreme Court last year to reverse its decision granting a constitutional right to abortion, Schmidt said he would respect voters’ choice following the August vote.

Kelly is running a kitchen table campaign on her administration’s success funding schools, balancing the budget and cutting the state’s sales tax on food.

Who voted no?

Abortion rights supporters’ victory in August reflected what Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, which campaigned against the amendment, was hearing from voters.

“For the most part, the people that we talked to really didn’t see abortion as a partisan or political issue,” said Ashley All, the group’s communications manager. “They saw it as incredibly complex and deeply personal, and so we intentionally approached it in a nonpartisan way.”

That freed the group up to have conversations across the political spectrum, she said. And they heard stories of complicated pregnancies and difficult decisions from voters.

“Maybe somebody, you know, saw their loved one go through a miscarriage or a really challenging and life-threatening pregnancy,” All said. “All of those things impact the decisions they make and they impact the way they see abortion and the decisions associated with pregnancy.”

Cat Poland’s journey from a pro-life Catholic kid to a supporter of abortion rights was a long one. Her older brother was arrested during the “Summer of Mercy,” when anti-abortion protestors rallied outside of abortion clinics in Wichita for weeks on end.

The first blow to her pro-life bonafides came when her brother took his life. Her family would later learn he had been sexually abused by a priest in their parish.

Years later, Poland said she was driving down the highway and saw a billboard about abortion.

“It hit me, I thought, ‘Where was the march for his life?’ ” Poland said. “Where was this outpouring of passion and political activism and the valuing of his life? Like, the hypocrisy of it just smacked me in the face.”

Then Poland’s first pregnancy was ectopic, a condition where an embryo attaches to the fallopian tube instead of the wall of the uterus. Ectopic pregnancies are never viable, but her doctor’s Catholic hospital system wouldn’t fill a prescription for an abortifacient.

“I had a potentially fatal condition and here this health care provider was lording their spiritual power over me,” she said.

She had to go to another health system that gave her the wrong dose. Her fallopian tube ruptured and she was forced to go to the hospital in excruciating pain to have it removed.

When she looked over her medical records and saw the term “abortion” used to describe the surgery, she said it was difficult to grapple with.

“I think it just made me realize that abortion looks a lot different than what people imagine it to be,” she said.

Though Jane Byrnes was a young adult when Roe v. Wade was decided, she didn’t think much about abortion for most of her adult life. It was a settled issue growing up Catholic.

But about 10 years ago, she started seeking out other Catholic women as she wrestled with how to talk about abortion. It was a long evolution for her from her Catholic upbringing. She started to realize she didn’t have anything against women who made the decision to terminate a pregnancy.

“It just didn’t exist in me to judge against them,” Byrnes said.

She said she started rethinking her position on abortion as she thought about the abuse and neglect children can receive in foster care or when they’re given up for adoption. A child’s need for care and protection doesn’t end at birth, she said.

“It’s not the end of the situation,” Byrnes said. “It’s the beginning of a great deal of difficulty and/or joy.”

Before this election cycle, Byrnes hadn’t talked much about abortion. But she appeared in a commercial for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom. All of a sudden, she talked about it constantly.

“There was a time in my life where I would have been anti-abortion,” she said in an interview. “But I hadn’t been there for a long time.”

That complicated mix of upbringing, beliefs and personal experience makes the results of the August vote difficult to interpret, All said.

“I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand why so many people voted no,” All said.

All said she saw a swing after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe in a case called Dobbs v. Jackson in late June, less than six weeks before the Kansas vote.

“The big shift that I saw was among moderate Republican women, unaffiliated men and women — people who believed that the constitutional right to abortion was protected at the federal level,” All said.

Though she believes the amendment would have failed regardless of the timing of the court decision, All said it was a wakeup call for a lot of people.

Across the country, that decision led to a wave of voter registrations, especially by women.

Mary Wehrman said she knocked on 600 doors in Pittsburg and around southeast Kansas in the weeks leading up to the vote. It was women over the age of 65 who surprised her with their support of abortion rights.

“I had some say, ‘I had friends, I had sisters who flew to New York to get services, had to get on a plane and fly to New York City’ — and people that had back alley abortions and that sort of thing,” Wehrman said.

Susan Osborne, a retired professor in Wichita, said she knew of many people who quietly voted “no” because they belonged to pro-life communities.

“They said, well, they didn’t want to make waves but … they just wanted me to know that they were voting no and that they were really proud of us for what we had done,” Osborne said.

Nancy Kassebaum, Kansas’ first woman senator, lives in Marion County and said she felt people who planned to vote in favor of abortion rights were less vocal.

“I think it’s because it was quietly sort of developing, if you know what I mean,” she said. “It was not like someone threw a bomb into a barricade. And before you knew it you were realizing there were a lot of people quietly saying they were going to vote no.”

Kassebaum was elected as a Republican in 1978. The night before her announcement, her father, former Kansas Gov. Alf Landon, a Republican who served in the 1930s and ran against Franklin D. Roosevelt for president, asked what she thought the press would ask her about.

She told him abortion and guns.

“There were a long pause, and my father at that point was in his 80s, and he said, ‘Abortion? Well what business is that of the government?’ ” Kassebaum said.

Pivot to fall

More than 942,000 Kansans cast ballots in the August constitutional vote, more than have voted in any statewide primary in the last 12 years and nearly as many as voted in the 2018 gubernatorial election, giving candidates a chance to take advantage of once-in-a-generation energy among Kansas voters.

But while Wehrman said she still hears concern about abortion as she knocks doors for Kelly, the two candidates’ campaigns for governor haven’t centered the issue.

Kelly said in an interview at a Greater Kansas City Women’s Political Caucus event last month that people know her stance on abortion, but they want her to focus on making Kansas prosperous. Kelly has consistently supported abortion rights since the start of her political career in Kansas. Before running for governor in 2018, she represented Topeka as a state senator for 14 years.

“I have always focused on the issues that I think are of concern to the majority of Kansas, and so, you know, I’m not going to change now,” Kelly said.

Her campaign declined to have a reporter along for campaign stops last week. But Kelly told CNN that Kansans “tend to elect to the governor’s office a very moderate, commonsense, thoughtful person to run their state and to make sure that the basic services are provided for them.”

“What they want me as governor to do is to focus on the kitchen table issues,” Kelly continued. “You know, they want me to focus on the economy. And we have done that.”

Schmidt’s campaign spokesman, C.J. Grover, said in a statement that the Republican has said the results of this summer’s vote “must be respected.” He said the “real question” is whether Kansas’ governor will defend existing abortion restrictions already on the books.

“Schmidt has committed to defending these laws as governor, just as he has in his time as attorney general,” Grover said.

Grover said Kelly has not promised the same, in part, “because the legal challenges will come from her political allies bankrolling her campaign.”

Tai Edwards, a historian and member of the leadership team for Women For Kansas, said there’s an ad or button to be made tying Kelly’s opponent, Schmidt, to anti-abortion forces. Schmidt is endorsed by a political action committee associated with Kansans For Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion group.

Kansas Values Institute, which is supporting Kelly, released one mailer with a “DANGER” sign above a photo of Schmidt. It says Schmidt “still wants to allow politicians to ban abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest or when the life of the woman is at risk.”

But Edwards said she could understand the strategy of not centering Kelly’s campaign on abortion if she perceives the issue as less partisan than typically thought.

“I would like to hear that,” Edwards said, “but I’m gonna vote for her even if she doesn’t say it. And maybe that’s what she thinks.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Ashley All’s role with Kansans for Constitutional Freedom. She was the group’s communications director.

This story was published earlier by the Kansas Reflector, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom network which includes the Florida Phoenix.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.