The White House is seeking to build momentum from a Kansas ballot measure on abortion where a surprisingly large majority voted to protect abortion rights.
The vote has energized supporters of abortion rights, who see the decisive outcome in a red state as a sign the majority of voters oppose the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision.
President Biden issued his second executive order on abortion the day after the vote, while Vice President Harris met with reproductive rights advocates. The two also touted the Kansas news at fundraisers directly following the vote, which they are eying as a potential game changer in terms of how voters are feeling ahead of November.
“It’s smart for Democrats and the White House to lean in on the threat and urgency of abortion bans across the country, do everything they can to stop bans and expand access to abortion, and start communicating that directly to voters,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, former communications director at the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
Nearly 60 percent of voters in Kansas on Tuesday rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have given the state legislature more power to regulate access to abortion. That marked the first time Americans were asked to weigh in on abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Biden’s executive order signed on Wednesday directs the Department of Health and Human Services to consider working with states to use Medicaid waivers to pay expenses for women who cross state lines to receive abortions.
“Something happened and it’s worth exploring and it’s got a lot of potential. It definitely put the wind in people sails on the Democratic side,” said Ivan Zapien, a lobbyist and former DNC official. “I’m assuming that every Democratic candidate is waking up every morning at this point, reminding people that this November, a woman’s right to choose is on the ballot and that they’re on the right side of that.”
Harris, during a meeting with state legislators and local leaders on reproductive rights in Boston on Thursday, applauded the organizers in Kansas for their work to sink the ballot measure. After her meeting, she went to a DNC finance event in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to fundraise.
“Because they organized, and they spoke volumes, they said we trust the women to make decisions about their lives, and they said this is not a partisan issue,” Harris said. “The vote that occurred in Kansas also made clear what we all know: The majority of Americans agree with this principle.”
Her trip is one of several recent visits to states to meet with local leaders and reproductive rights advocates. Harris also convened Latina legislators at the White House on Friday to discuss protecting reproductive rights in their states. She opened the meeting by saying that “the people of Kansas made clear to support and trust women to make decisions about their own body.”
The White House has been looking ahead to November, calling on voters to elect pro-choice candidates who would codify Roe. They are now arguing that Kansas showed the messaging worked.
“Kansans turned out to challenge views that would move the country backward — with fewer rights and politicians invading our most personal decisions — and they won. In the wake of Dobbs, the president predicted people would turn out in record numbers to reclaim rights stolen from them. And they did,” Alexandra LaManna, White House assistant press secretary, told The Hill.
Sawyer Hackett, a senior communications strategist for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, stressed that it would be a mistake for Democrats not to emphasize ahead of November that the vote in Kansas may have marked a political shift.
“I think the politics of this issue has shifted dramatically in such a way that it’s just not only an issue that motivates Democrats … but it’s also an issue that motivates independents,” he said. “I would be a huge mistake for the Democratic party, for President Biden, not to be hitting this issue every single day on the campaign trail.”
Hinojosa argued that Democrats have to message on other successes, but abortion should be at the forefront.
“This won’t stop Democrats from messaging on a strong economy and all their accomplishments, but they can and must do both,” said Hinojosa, now a managing director at Bully Pulpit Interactive.
Biden had some big political wins this week on top of the vote in Kansas.
The president announced a drone strike that killed al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Congress passed a measure to fund research for veterans impacted by toxic substances, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) struck a deal with Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to back a sweeping climate and tax bill.
A strong July jobs report capped off the week, defying predictions of a slowdown. It showed that the U.S. added 528,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 3.5 percent.
Biden’s recent wins come as he has faced tough approval ratings amid high inflation and fears that the U.S. economy is heading for a recession. The White House’s initial response to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade was also criticized for being flat-footed, and progressives have argued the messaging was too slow or ineffective.
Biden announced his first executive actions to protect access to abortion medication two weeks after the Supreme Court ruling.
“A lot of Democrats were frustrated by the White House response to both the leaked opinion and then the announcement of the opinion. Both in message and in strategy, it felt like they were caught flat-footed. Now it seems like they’ve picked up the pace,” said Hackett.
He said he’d like to see Biden and Democrats travel to red states where Republicans are targeting abortion rights.
“I’d like to see them keep this on voters’ minds going into the November,” he added. “It seems like they’re taking the hint, so that’s good news.”
Zapien argued that in the aftermath of the Kansas vote, Democrats will be full steam ahead on keeping abortion access top of minds for voters.
“Right after the decision, I think everybody was in a wait and see sort of mode,” he said. “But I think after Kansas, everybody woke up and said, like, ‘we have evidence. Let’s go for it.’”