Yes, Kansas Is Conservative. It’s Also Complicated.



In the popular imagination, Kansas is synonymous with modern American conservatism, and not without reason. It has voted Republican in every presidential election for more than 50 years and hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1932.

While the state governor’s office has a history of swinging between the parties — a Democrat, Laura Kelly, is the current occupant — not long ago it was held by one of the most dogmatic Republicans in the nation, Sam Brownback, who tested the limits of supply-side economics.

The state has also been a hotbed of sometimes violent anti-abortion activism: It was the site of the 1991 “Summer of Mercy,” in which the group Operation Rescue blockaded abortion clinics, and it is where the abortion provider George Tiller was shot in 1993 and killed in 2009.

That makes Kansas voters’ resounding rejection of an anti-abortion constitutional amendment on Tuesday remarkable. But the state’s politics have never been as simple as the common narrative conveys.

There have been “these moments where Kansas does something politically that we might not expect,” said Brianne Heidbreder, an associate professor of political science at Kansas State University.

That unpredictability, she said, dates back to Kansas’ admission as a free state in 1861. “While it is a very conservative state, there is a large proportion of the electorate that really considers itself moderate,” Dr. Heidbreder added.

Patrick Miller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas, pointed to a crucial distinction: “We’re more Republican than we are conservative.”

“There are a lot of counties on our map that voted no yesterday that never vote for a Democrat for anything, from federal office down to local office,” Dr. Miller said.

“You see that sometimes in Medicaid expansion in other states,” he said, “that expression of that voter who typically is going to be a straight-ticket Republican, but if they’re asked to express their opinion on just this one issue, they’ll vote more left-leaning.”

The result was still a surprise — Dr. Miller said he was “utterly gobsmacked” by the size of the margin — but the surprise was less about ideology than about the degree to which opponents of the amendment overcame typical voter behavior patterns. The measure was on the ballot in a primary, when Republicans usually have a large turnout advantage.

The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade was seen as a huge factor, energizing voters and making it easier for pro-abortion-rights groups to drum up turnout. Crucially, those groups also framed their messaging to play to the same political instincts that typically benefit Republicans.

“Kansas residents are open to appeals from both sides that push back on the idea of government mandates or involvement in people’s lives,” Dr. Heidbreder said. “This idea that government shouldn’t be involved or shouldn’t mandate what you do when it comes to your health care, that it is a personal decision — that’s the philosophy that was really identified by the opponents of this amendment as something that could really take hold with Kansas voters.”

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