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In Kansas and Arizona, voters defy expectations to chart their own course

Abortion rights supporters cheer in Overland Park, Kansas, on Aug. 2 as the proposed Kansas constitutional amendment removing the right to an abortion fails.
Kansas City Star
Abortion rights supporters cheer in Overland Park, Kansas, on Aug. 2 as the proposed Kansas constitutional amendment removing the right to an abortion fails.

Everyone who knows anything about politics knows something about Kansas and Arizona — or thinks they do.

But things we all know for sure can turn out to be wrong.

It's at least worth taking a second look at Kansas and Arizona, which we all knew were among the most conservative places in the country, steeped in the voting proclivities of the West and its agriculture-and-extraction economies. Their political histories are deeply entwined with national Republican politics.

Prior to 2020 these states had each voted Democratic for president only once in 70 years. They have also produced between them four of the Republican nominees for president, including three since 1964, a remarkable record given their populations.

But this past week showed surprises can happen where you least expect them.

In Kansas, a special referendum to override the state constitution and empower the legislature to enact new abortion restrictions was rejected. Big time. The no option got 58% of the vote. Turnout was nearly double what it had been for the last comparable primary and nearly equal to the November 2018 midterm election. Unaffiliated voters who had nothing else to vote on in the primary came out to vote on the abortion measure – and turn thumbs down.

In a strong signal with national implications, the anti-abortion vote lagged the vote for former President Trump in the state by 15 points. That data point begs the question of how other Trump states or "red states" might respond to the Supreme Court's latest abortion ruling when it comes to elections this fall.

The New York Times' Nate Cohn produced a formula of polls and voting data to estimate how all 50 states would vote if faced with a similar ballot measure. He found only seven states where the anti-abortion measure would pass and estimated the popular vote nationally would be 65% against such a measure.

Abortion opponents were shocked this week, having assumed that Kansas would be a great place to start the state-by-state struggle over abortion rights that the Supreme Court has set in motion.

It seems that they, too, had too many presumptions about Kansas.

Is Arizona now ground zero?

In Arizona, primary voters dumped a full slate of conservative statewide candidates backed by the Republican establishment in favor of four election deniers who reject the results of the state's 2020 presidential vote. From the nominees for governor and senator down to Arizona secretary of state and attorney general, the candidates who paid obeisance to Trump on this issue won his endorsement and were nominated.

Arizona Republicans who still revere the late Sen. John McCain, a frequent Trump nemesis, were appalled. So were those who honor the memory of the legendary Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose libertarian vision of conservatism recruited Ronald Reagan, among others, to the GOP.

Republican Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates called the results "a catastrophe for the Arizona Republican Party and I would argue [for] our democracy."

The GOP is well known for swallowing its bitterness after primary fights and coalescing around its nominees for the general election. But the difficulty of doing that this year was underscored by the chair of the state party committee, Kelli Ward, who called the primary "an exorcism of John McCain."

It's hard to imagine a sharper delineation of what divides Republicans in Arizona. The same might be said in other states where Republican candidates have bound themselves to Trump's baseless and caustic claims about the 2020 election so as to win his backing.

It is possible, indeed quite plausible based on polling, that the Republican slate will be defeated, leaving Arizona Democrats holding all the statewide positions and more seats in Congress than ever before.

That would surely be another case of presumptions exploded.

Learning lessons from Kansas and Arizona

So the first lesson from these uncommon events is the unreliable nature of our notions about our neighbors. It turns out the real world of politics state-by-state is more complicated than we thought. Go figure.

Kansas, people are suddenly noticing, currently has a Democratic governor named Laura Kelly. It turns out the previous 10 governors of Kansas, going back 50 years, have included five Democrats.

The state's most populous county, suburban Johnson (literally across the street from Kansas City) cast 68% of its vote to protect abortion this past week. It is represented in Congress by Sharice Davids, a Democrat and a Native American woman.

Arizona, long known for its ranches and retirement communities, has become increasingly non-Anglo in its population mix. Its Hispanic population was 19% in 1990, 25% in 2000 and is 32% now. In addition, the influx of new arrivals from other states, especially California, has swollen the population and transformed the politics of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and its suburbs. Maricopa now votes Democratic, and that alone has scrambled the math in statewide elections.

A second nugget to set aside from the vote this week is the potency of a human trait often seen in American politics, especially in the West and in the sparsely populated parts of the country.

People bristle and resist when told what they can or cannot do. We knew this about guns, vaccinations and masks. We are seeing some of that with regard to abortion rights, even in red states.

Yet a third thing to bear in mind always is that generalizing or projecting from one election outcome — or even a long history of them — is hazardous. Every race is always local, and every candidate is a potential game changer. That is how, for example, Alabama could elect a Democrat named Doug Jones to the Senate in a 2018 special election and dismiss him two years later in a presidential election cycle. The Democrat was the same, his opponents and the electoral circumstances were vastly different.

So it is too soon to draw too many conclusions about what this past week's votes might mean for November in other states. In the general election in Kansas and Arizona, as elsewhere, the outcomes will reflect the national issues and trends. But that input will be filtered through the special circumstances of the state and then refashioned by the personalities of the candidates involved.

While it is clear the abortion issue drives turnout and motivates women (70% of the new registrations after the Supreme Court's abortion decision this spring in Kansas were women), it is not clear how that will translate beyond the handful of states that are holding referenda similar to the one in Kansas.

And while we can see the polls that suggest the Trump-backed Republicans are weaker in the general election match-ups against Democrats, it is too soon to see which party will be more motivated in three months. An incendiary individual can motivate more voters in support or in opposition. And in Arizona, for example, the Senate nominee Blake Masters has been quoted saying President Biden's COVID adviser Anthony Fauci "will see the inside of a jail cell this decade."

This is not the first time these two states have been caught up in a midterm cycle of historic significance

There was another in 1974, the year Richard Nixon resigned the presidency on the brink of impeachment in the Watergate scandal. In Arizona that year, the incumbent Republican senator whose name was on the ballot was Barry Goldwater. In Kansas, it was Bob Dole.

Besides the hangover from Watergate, the salient issues in that fall campaign were gas prices, inflation and abortion. The latter had leaped into prominence with the Supreme Court decision the previous year in Roe v Wade. Opposition to that decision had come immediately from the U.S. Council of Bishops and a few other powerful religious organizations, but it was just beginning to grow into its eventual power.

Bob Dole, then the Republican presidential candidate visits with former Sen. Barry Goldwater, on Sept. 17, 1996.
David Ake / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Bob Dole, then the Republican presidential candidate visits with former Sen. Barry Goldwater, on Sept. 17, 1996.

One place where that power was felt early was Kansas. Dole was seeking his second term in the Senate and carrying a great deal of Nixon baggage, having been one of that president's chief defenders as a senator and as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Polls showed him trailing his Democratic challenger, a doctor named William Roy, as Election Day neared. Then an anti-abortion group produced a flyer depicting aborted fetuses. The flyers appeared on the windshields of cars parked near churches on Sunday morning.

Dole edged Roy by 1.7%, the closest election of his 35-year career. He would become Senate majority leader in 1985 and the GOP presidential nominee in 1996. Dole died late last year.

Goldwater did not have a close call in the 1974 election, one of the few Republican incumbents who did not. He was insulated from the Watergate fallout, having been a Nixon critic. He was also credited with persuading the president to resign when it was clear he would be impeached and convicted.

Goldwater, it surprises some to learn, was a supporter of abortion rights. He stuck to that view to the end, serving in the Senate until 1986. He did not change his view, despite the rising influence of social conservatives in the Arizona state party, and was a champion for the separation of church and state until his death in 1998.

In the Roe v Wade year of 1974, Goldwater was still a household name nationwide. He had sought and won the Republican nomination for president 10 years earlier, vanquishing the Eastern Establishment of the GOP. While he was crushed that fall by incumbent Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, Goldwater did carry five states in the Deep South, showing the path ahead that five other Republican nominees would later follow to the White House.

Along the way he inspired a generation of youthful politicos, including a teenaged Hillary Rodham in suburban Chicago. A "Goldwater Girl" in 1964, she would later become Hillary Clinton, serve as first lady, senator from New York, secretary of state and 2016 nominee for president.

One wonders if she still has her "AuH20in64" button among her keepsakes.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.