Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Liking Liberal Policies but Not Liberal Politicians

Inside politics: Key governor contests are set with abortion as the central issue; a defense of state Senates puts the focus on Nebraska; and, once again, a big number of legislators are facing no competition in elections.

A protest in Wichita ahead of the Kansas vote on abortion. (Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
Editor's Note: this article is a part of Governing's Inside Politics newsletter. Sign up here.

Liking Liberal Policies but Not Liberal Politicians: Abortion rights supporters scored a huge win on Tuesday, with Kansas voters decisively rejecting a proposed amendment to remove abortion rights from the state constitution. The vote immediately raised hopes among Democrats that abortion can be an animating issue that will help cut against the generally pro-GOP headwinds they’re facing in the fall. “It’s a blowout,” says one former Republican state senator in Kansas. “Like Pearl Harbor. Will the general election turnout overwhelm conservatives?”

There’s no question the amendment was a propulsive force. Turnout topped 900,000 — nearly double the number of people who voted in Kansas in the 2018 primary and close to three times as many as in 2014. In fact, more people voted in Tuesday’s primary than the general elections held in the fall of 2010 or 2014. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision led to a spike in voter registration in the state, driven by women. The vote in Kansas represented the first time voters were able to respond directly to that decision; hence the different outcome from Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia, where voters over the past decade approved similar ballot measures blocking abortion rights from their state constitutions.

But if abortion politics in the post-Roe era are dicey for Republicans, does that mean the party’s in trouble? Evidence from other ballot measures in recent years suggests otherwise.

Since 2018, Medicaid expansions have been approved by voters in five red states (Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Utah). Minimum wage increases have been approved practically everywhere they’ve been on the ballot, including red states such as Arkansas and Florida. The same with marijuana legalization efforts. Popular support for those policies, however, has not translated into Democratic victories in candidate contests.

There are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, voters presented with a ballot question are deciding a single issue. They don’t have to weigh it against other possible priorities, as they do when candidates are running on a whole platform of causes. Also, policy preferences don’t overlap perfectly with party identification. Most people stay loyal to one party or the other over the course of their lives, even though parties shift over time when it comes to the issue mix they’re pushing. That’s especially true during a highly polarized era, when most Republicans wouldn’t consider voting for a Democrat (and vice versa).

Although progressives have gotten wise about turning to ballot initiatives to push priorities they can’t move through Republican-controlled legislatures, they aren’t always strategic about wedding popular causes to candidate campaigns, suggests Joshua Dyck, director of the Center for Public Opinion at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Republicans in past decades were careful about timing tax cut and same-sex marriage measures to help them more broadly at the ballot box, he notes, but few Democrats run on what turn out to be winning issues such as marijuana legalization.

“Democrats now have an opportunity to tailor abortion ballot measures in red states to bolster party support,” Dyck says. “The question is, will they see and effectively use this strategy?”
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (TNS)
Key Governor Contests Set: Abortion is bound to be a central issue in some of the major races for governor this year. The major-party lineups were set on Tuesday in three of the most competitive states.

Including Kansas itself. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly might have benefited politically from passage of the abortion amendment, which would have left her as the last line of defense for abortion rights in a state where the Legislature is dominated by Republicans. She faces state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who early on emerged as the GOP’s consensus candidate and possibly Kelly’s strongest rival.

It's certainly possible that Kelly will benefit from the surge in voter interest in her state, but she can’t count on all the voters who came out against the abortion amendment. At least 20 percent of the votes against the amendment came from Republicans, while voting in the GOP primary was much higher than on the Democratic side. One of the main messages in advertising against the amendment was opposition to “government mandates.”

“We focused on this as a nonpartisan issue,” Ashley All, communications director for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, which led the opposition to the amendment, said in a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday. “People don’t see it through a partisan lens. They see this much more as a personal health-care issue, a complicated moral and sometimes religious decision.”

Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made abortion her first line of attack in a statement blasting Tudor Dixon, her newly nominated Republican opponent. Dixon, a former commentator and actor, recently said that a hypothetical 14-year-old victim of incestual rape is the “perfect example” of why she supports banning abortion. “A life is a life for me,” Dixon said. It looks likely that an amendment to enshrine abortion rights in the Michigan constitution will be on the fall ballot. That would be good timing for Whitmer, who already lucked out when five potential Republican challengers were blocked from the ballot due to fraudulent signatures.

Dixon, who had the backing of the wealthy DeVos family, won a late endorsement from former President Donald Trump. It appears that Trump’s preferred candidate in Arizona, former news anchor Kari Lake, has prevailed over developer Karrin Taylor Robson, who was supported by term-limited GOP Gov. Doug Ducey (as well as Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence). If her lead holds, Lake will face Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, the Democratic nominee.

Lake has run on false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Having barely defeated Taylor Robson, she now has to reunite a fractured state GOP. Referring to Lake and GOP Senate nominee Blake Masters, the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics points out that this gives “Arizona Republicans an exceedingly far-right ticket in a state that is not nearly as red as it used to be.” But the center still rates the race as a tossup.
Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln
Nebraska state Capitol in Lincoln.
In Defense of Senates: What was the last great policy initiative that came out of Nebraska? I can’t think of one either. With all due respect to Nebraska lawmakers, the state seems to be governed well, but hasn’t generated a lot of whiz-bang innovations that have been widely copied by other states.

This thought crossed my mind when I came across an article in the current edition of The American Prospect, a liberal magazine (which I have written for a couple of times). Bluntly titling his piece “Abolish State Senates,” Editor-at-Large Harold Meyerson makes the case that upper chambers serve no purpose. Their partisan makeups are now nearly identical to state houses and, unlike the nomination and treaty-confirming U.S. Senate, they do essentially the same work. Having two separate chambers shields lawmakers from scrutiny, he writes, because key provisions can be added or derailed as bills ping-pong between the chambers.

Meyerson concedes that “the stupefying superfluousness of state senates” is not the greatest challenge facing the country, but argues that states having a single, larger chamber would offer greater representation, because districts would be so much smaller. Moving away from districts altogether and having proportional representation would be even better, in his view.

Those may or may not be great ideas, but the reality is that smaller districts and proportional representation are achievable even within the bicameral setup. (As Meyerson notes, 10 states offer something akin to proportional representation with multi-member districts.) But the main point is that having a single chamber, as Nebraska shows, is no guarantee of dramatically greater governance.

Facing No Competition: Filing deadlines for legislative seats have passed in all the states that have single-member districts. According to CNalysis, which tracks legislative elections, there are 761 Democrat-held seats where no Republican has filed and 1,275 Republican seats with no Democratic candidate. That means there’s no major-party competition in roughly a third of the more than 6,000 seats in play this year.

That’s a lot of uncontested seats, but their number has actually come down. Between 1992 and 2016, only 45 percent of state legislators faced major-party competition, according to Steven Rogers, a political scientist at St. Louis University. With so few legislators facing primary challenges, Rogers notes, a third of them get re-elected each cycle simply by filing for office.
Previous Editions
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
From Our Partners