Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly speaks during a ceremony to unveil a statue of Amelia Earhart in Statuary Hall at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on July 27, 2022.
CNN  — 

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is petite, soft-spoken and rarely heard from on the national stage. But on August 2, when Kansans shocked the nation by voting to preserve a right to abortion in the state’s constitution, Kelly’s statement on the vote read like a new blueprint for Democrats navigating the uncertain politics of the post Roe v. Wade era.

“Kansans stood up for fundamental rights today,” Kelly wrote in a tweet. “We rejected divisive legislation that jeopardized our economic future & put women’s health care access at risk.”

Another tweet called proponents of the ballot measure “extremists” and warned that “they want to take our state back in time.”

All of this in a state that Donald Trump won by double digits. Twice.

Kelly, who made national headlines when she was elected to office in 2018, is one of this year’s most vulnerable Democratic incumbents as she fights for a second term in her reliably red state.

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  • Despite her full-throated opposition to the ballot measure that would have allowed lawmakers to strip abortion rights from the state’s constitution, and her long history of pushing back on abortion restrictions both as governor and during her 14 years as a state legislator, Kelly is very much not centering her campaign on abortion.

    “The vote on August 2 made it very clear how that can be, 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,” Kelly said in an interview. “What they want me as governor to do is to focus on the kitchen table issues. You know, they want me to focus on the economy. And we have done that.”

    Voters, Democratic candidates and organizers say the issue of abortion has emerged as a source of debate and conversation among voters here, particularly after the referendum. And while the economy is still the top issue, abortion often emerges as a concern.

    That said, Kelly is fighting for political survival in an unusual landscape: one in which economic headwinds and political polarization would seem to make it more difficult for any Democrat in a purple or red state to survive. But it is also one in which a burst of energy, prompted by the Supreme Court’s reversal of 50 years of legal precedent on abortion, has given Democrats a fresh opportunity.

    Kelly has opted to plant her reelection campaign firmly in home-grown Kansas issues: eliminating a grocery tax, funding for schools and her fiscal stewardship of the state.

    It’s a strategy designed to counter the efforts by her Republican opponent, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, to tie her to national Democratic figures like President Joe Biden and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as national issues like immigration, inflation and culture-war issues.

    A recent Schmidt ad accused Kelly of supporting “groups that push critical race theory and the transgender agenda.

    “Laura Kelly won’t stand up to the liberal Washington agenda. But I will,” Schmidt says in the ad.

    In Kansas, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2 to 1. And if Kelly is going to replicate the coalition that won her the governor’s mansion in 2018, she will both have to maximize Democratic voters and recruit some moderate Republican voters.

    “As a Democrat, you have to have Republican support to win in Kansas, whether statewide or in some of these targeted congressional districts,” said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic research firm. “Republicans make up a majority of the electorate in the state. And so we’ve seen in the vote on that constitutional amendment in August that a large number of Republicans actually supported the ‘no vote’ – the pro-[abortion rights] position.”

    Abortion rights remains on voters’ minds

    On the ground in Kansas, a familiar story is playing out: The economy is voters’ top concern.

    But after the August referendum, where nearly 60% of Kansans voted to protect abortion access, that issue is still on voters’ minds.

    Both Kelly and Schmidt have been pressed in recent debates on their positions on abortion.

    Kelly firmly, but succinctly reiterated her position on abortion, framing it as a form of government overreach into women’s bodily autonomy.

    “I think 60% of Kansas said they don’t want that government overreach into people’s personal lives,” Kelly said at the Kansas State Fair on September 10, to applause from supporters. “I have been consistent on my position on this issue since I entered the state Senate 18 years ago. And I will stay consistent, no matter what.

    Schmidt has said that the voters’ will should be respected, but that the issue is not settled.

    “I do believe that going forward the biggest challenge will be defending those restrictions and limitations that are already on the books,” Schmidt said. “I believe they will be subject to legal challenge, I’m committed to defending them going forward.”

    If anything, the results of the ballot initiative have scrambled perceptions in Kansas of whether abortion is an issue that Democrats can use to win over moderate Republican voters.

    Retirees Linda and Jim Schottler are registered Republicans in Manhattan, Kansas, who say the abortion referendum changed the way people talk about the issue – and politics in general – in the state.

    “A lot of people just don’t talk politics when they get into a group because they are afraid of stepping on toes,” Jim Schottler said. “But since the referendum, I feel like a lot of people are talking about that and maybe trying to loosen the conversation about that polarization.”d

    But when it comes to national politics and the economy, their mood is far more ambivalent.

    “I’m not sure I agree with Biden on a lot of issues, but I don’t agree with the opposite party right now. So it’s a difficult situation,” Linda Schottler said.

    Yet the couple voted no on the abortion ballot measure and plan to support Kelly in November.

    “We voted no, believing that a woman’s right to her own body should be her decision, not someone else’s,” Linda Schottler said.

    “It was just not our right to decide for somebody else,” Jim Schottler.

    AmyJo Kneisel, a Kansas native who recently moved back to the state, says she intends to reregister as a Republican ahead of the general election. Her younger sister, Angela Dawdy, is a Democrat. Despite their opposite political affiliations, abortion access is where they find common ground.

    “I myself have an 11-year-old daughter and I want her to be able to have choices in life. And that’s a huge choice for me,” Dawdy said. “I just hope that going forward that people make choices based more on the ideology of what’s out there, not just Republican or Democrat.

    “I’ve never been a proponent for abortion, but then again, what’s right for me may not be right for somebody else,” Kneisel said. “Well, don’t tell our dad this, but I might end voting a little bit more Democrat based on what’s been going on with the party lately.”

    “We like to weigh both issues with both parties. So, we don’t just go in and blindly vote based on our party. We listen and keep our ear to the ground,” added Kneisel.

    ‘Kansas was the first indicator’

    Kelly and Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids, who is running for reelection in Kansas’ 3rd Congressional district, are hoping to find many more Republican voters exactly like the Schottlers and Kneisel. In 2020, Davids won her district by a 10-point margin against Republican Amanda Adkins, who is running against her again this cycle.

    But after redistricting, Kansas’ 3rd District may be a steeper hill for Davids to climb with the addition of rural and conservative communities. And yet, she says, voters are still raising the issue of reproductive rights with her in conversation.

    “I talk about and address and try to work on issues that people are talking to me about,” Davids said in an interview. “I’ve met with folks who… the purpose of the meeting was to talk about farm bill issues. And then at the end of the meeting, I’ve had folks say, hey, where are you at on the constitutional amendment.”

    “People get really emotional when they tell me about this stuff and that they want to make sure that someone like me or some governor or some other politician isn’t the one who’s telling somebody whether or not they can get access to the care that they need in an emergency situation,” she added.

    The referendum has also made Democrats in the state more bullish on the prospect of bringing new voters into the electorate – especially young women and voters of color.

    “I think there was a big question as to what impact [the Supreme Court abortion decision] would have on the election and on the November election,” said Bonier. “And so Kansas was the first indicator in seeing that women, younger voters, and voters of color were so engaged in that election and turned out at such a high rate.

    “It proves that that issue is something that can motivate these voters to come out in this election that really looked like it was going to be a definitive red wave election.”

    Democratic organizers like 27-year-old Carla Rivas-D’Amico of Common Sense Kansas have set their sights on the state’s Latino community, which accounts for 13% of the state’s population and is the fastest growing minority population in Kansas.

    In the August primary, the share of the Latino vote was the second highest in Kansas history, narrowly ahead of their share of the electorate in the 2018 general election, according to the data firm Catalist.

    “The voters sent a really clear message that they want politicians to stay out of their private medical decisions and instead focus on creating jobs, strengthening the economy, and funding our schools,” said Rivas-D’Amico.

    Just before dusk in a strip mall in Olathe, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Rivas-D’Amico, whose parents are from Venezuela, gave a training session in Spanish to about 20 Hispanic volunteers who were preparing to canvas in the area. More than one out of every 10 residents in Olathe is Hispanic. She teared up as she described the importance of building the community’s political power.

    “We deserve to be persuaded,” Rivas-D’Amico said.

    Later, as she walked the streets of a predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood, Rivas-D’Amico said that voters here talk to her overwhelmingly about the economy, but among organizers, there’s newfound encouragement that if they go after these votes, it could make a difference.

    “This is one of the most competitive governor’s races and congressional races in the country and every vote makes the difference,” she said. “The overwhelming 60% win was unexpected to a lot of people but it restored confidence in the idea that when we get out there and we organize, we talk to each other – which is the only way forward – we win.”