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Kansans to decide fate of abortion rights in primary election

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that abortion is a fundamental right under the state Constitution. A ballot question seeks to reverse that decision.

(CN) — Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Kansas voters will have the chance to decide the fate of abortion rights in the state on Aug. 2, portending the fight to come in other states as well.

“It’s very much a bellwether of what’s to come,” said Bob Beatty, professor and chair of the political science department at Washburn University.

Kansans will vote on a constitutional amendment called the Value Them Both amendment that states abortion is not a right under the Kansas Constitution. The vote comes after a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in 2019 found that abortion procedures were guaranteed under the state Constitution as part of personal autonomy, “which includes the ability to control one’s own body.”

The amendment would allow the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass new laws restricting or even banning abortions.

“It takes the abortion issue out of the Constitution and courts and into the legislature,” Beatty said.

Kentucky voters will vote on a similar amendment in November.

The vote was originally planned by GOP lawmakers to take place during the primary when fewer voters turn out to the polls. Richard Levy, professor at the University of Kansas School of Law, said the timing of the U.S. Supreme Court decision might galvanize abortion rights voters, but typically they are less single issue voters than anti-abortion voters, who are more likely to vote in primary elections.

“It’s the first example of a post-Dobbs election in which abortion is on the ballot,” Levy said. In Kansas, if it’s even close, it would show that pro choice voters have momentum.”

While unaffiliated voters are usually not allowed to vote in the primary, they are allowed to vote on the ballot question.

Money has poured into the campaigns of both supporters and opponents of the amendment. Supporters of the amendment include the Susan B. Anthony Pro Life America organization, which donated $1.3 million, the Archdiocese in Kansas City, Kansas, which donated $500,000 and the Catholic Diocese of Wichita which contributed $250,000.

While churches are usually not allowed to promote or campaign for political candidates, they are allowed to contribute to ballot questions under federal law without losing their status as a charitable entity.

“The U.S. Supreme Court restored the people’s ability to come to individual consensus on abortion limits,” said the Value Them Both Coalition, a group of amendment supporters, in a statement. “At this historically important time, the question before Kansans on August 2nd is clear: an unregulated abortion industry with no limits at all or the reasonable limits protected by” the amendment.

Meanwhile, abortion rights group Kansans for Constitutional Freedom have began airing TV ads across the state. Their message has been bolstered by Kansas Democrats, including Governor Laura Kelly and U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, who represents a large part of the Kansas City metro area.

“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,”  Davids tweeted.

Dana Berry, an unaffiliated voter and homemaker from Johnson County, said she normally doesn’t pay attention to primary elections.

“I usually can’t vote because I’m not a Democrat or Republican, but there’s no way I’m missing this,” she said. “I want to vote no on the amendment.”

One of the most followed races in the primary is the attorney general contest, thanks to the participation of Republican firebrand Kris Kobach. Kobach gained national attention as a frequent guest on conservative talk shows and part of former President Donald Trump’s election integrity commission.

Kobach has sought to implement strict voting laws, claiming that election fraud was widespread. But the former Kansas secretary of state is fighting an uphill battle with perceived issues of electability. He lost his bid for governor to Democrat Laura Kelly in 2018 after narrowly defeating former Governor Jeff Colyer in the primary.

He then launched a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2020, where he lost the primary to Senator Roger Marshall by 14 percentage points. Even if he wins the primary, there are concerns among Republicans that Kobach’s rhetoric will be enough to push away more moderate GOP and unaffiliated voters.

“There are multiple prominent Republicans who genuinely believe that Kobach is simply too toxic to get elected to any state-wide office, which is why some of their biggest donors — like the Kansas Chamber [of Commerce] — had thrown their support (and money) behind one of the other candidates, usually Kellie Warren,” said Russell Fox, professor of political science at Friends University.

Kobach is facing former federal prosecutor Tony Mattivi and state Senator Kellie Warren for the job. Although Kobach has greater name recognition, Warren has the bulk of support from Kansas Republican organizations.

“I have been tested, and I win,” Warren said. “And the other candidate: conservative Republican but doesn’t win.”

Both Kobach and Warren have vowed to sue the Biden administration over immigration laws. In a mostly conservative state, both candidates present themselves as anti-Biden Republicans.

“I’ll wake up every morning having my breakfast thinking about what our next lawsuit against Joe Biden is going to be,” Kobach said.

While Kobach is fighting electability issues, Beatty said he also has a pool of far-right supporters ready to vote for him.

“Kobach is someone with a base of support,” Beatty said. “He’s won a number of primaries.”

The winner of the primary will go up against Democrat Chris Mann in November.

Although Democratic Gov. Kelly was able to defeat Kobach in 2018’s contest, she faces a steeper challenge with Derek Schmidt, the current Kansas secretary of state. 

Schmidt seems to be the frontrunner in the Republican primary. His only rival being Arlyn Briggs, a man who has run for office multiple times and was arrested recently for criminal threat against a law enforcement officer.

What could drive voters to the polls in November is the result of the Value Them Both amendment vote. If passed, Kelly could veto new abortion restrictions from the Republican-held Legislature.

Professor Fox said, “economics will have less to do with people’s decisions this November than will their memory of and opinions about Kelly’s actions during the pandemic, and of course the consequences of the August abortion amendment vote.”

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