The Ads That Won the Kansas Abortion Referendum
Three months ago, after the leak of the Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, the House Pro-Choice Caucus caused a stir by, ironically, deeming the word choice to be “harmful language.” It encouraged the use of the word decision instead. The messaging guidelines also rejected the “safe, legal, and rare” abortion formulation that was Bill Clinton’s mantra in the 1990s in favor of “safe, legal, and accessible.”
Even before the leak, activist groups and establishment insiders were bickering over whether Democrats should freely and proudly use the word abortion or rely more on indirect phrases like “reproductive freedom.”
These disputes reflected generational and ideological divides in the Democratic Party, between moderate elders accustomed to playing defense in the abortion debate and younger progressives eager to seize the offensive.
But for those who won the fight to protect abortion rights in Kansas, all that noise meant nothing.
Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the group that led the campaign to defeat the constitutional amendment intended to permit abortion bans, developed a messaging strategy that resonated across the political spectrum and eschewed purity tests.
“We definitely used messaging strategies that would work regardless of party affiliation,” Jae Gray, a field organizer for the group, told The Washington Post. The results validated the strategy, with the anti-abortion constitutional amendment losing by some 160,000 votes, even while Republican primary voters outnumbered Democrats by about 187,000.
What did the abortion rights campaign say to woo voters in a conservative state?
I reviewed eight ads paid for by Kansans for Constitutional Freedom. One used the word choice. Four used decision. Three, neither. The spots usually included the word abortion, but not always.
To appeal to libertarian sentiments, the spots aggressively attacked the anti-abortion amendment as a “government mandate.” To avoid alienating moderates who support constraints on abortion, one ad embraced the regulations already on the Kansas books.
And they used testimonials to reach the electorate: a male doctor who refused to violate his “oath”; a Catholic grandmother worried about her granddaughter’s freedom; a married mom who had a life-saving abortion; and a male pastor offering a religious argument for women’s rights and, implicitly, abortion.
Let’s dissect some of the ads.
A spot released in June introduced the “government mandate” attack that anchored the campaign. “They call it a constitutional amendment,” intones the narrator. “The truth? It’s a strict government mandate designed to interfere with private medical decisions, a slippery slope that could put more of your individual and personal rights at risk.”
Not only is abortion not mentioned, nor are any other endangered rights. The imagination is allowed to wander. Also, the off-camera narrator is male, so there’s no explicit or implicit narrowing of the issue as a women’s issue.
The only allusion to lost rights is brief, visual, and not written to soothe the delicate sensibilities of progressive voters. As the narrator proclaims, “Kansans don’t want another government mandate,” we see quick shots of a storefront sign with a coronavirus mask mandate and a church marquee that reads “ALL MASSES CANCELLED.” Aligning the pro-choice sentiment with anti-mask rebelliousness is a message that crosses political lines.
Another ad released in June features a man, this time a Wichita doctor, Alan Fearey. (The Wichita Eagle reported that this ad made Fearey “an overnight celebrity” and “now better known than his wife, Sharon, who served eight years on the Wichita City Council.”)
Fearey addresses abortion but begins, “Do no harm. That’s the oath we take as doctors.” Lamenting intrusive government, the physician warns, “The government wants to force doctors in Kansas to break that oath by passing a constitutional amendment that could put a mother’s life at risk.”
He paints the worst-case scenario: “It’s a government mandate that could ban all abortions with no exceptions, even rape and incest.”
This charge irritated Kansas right-to-lifers, since, technically, the amendment wouldn’t impose a ban. Still, the Republican state legislators who put the amendment on the ballot did so to enact a ban legislatively. (One misleading pro-amendment ad even suggested that the amendment would maintain the status quo: “It doesn’t ban abortion or remove exceptions … It lets us keep common-sense limits on abortion that we already agree on.”) The pro-choice ad makers didn’t waste precious seconds on caveats.
Yet another male-narrated ad targets supporters of abortion restrictions, whom the pro-amendment forces were courting as well.
“Abortion is already highly regulated in Kansas,” the narrator begins, before ticking off laws banning taxpayer-funded abortions, requiring parental consent for minors, and outlawing abortions after fetal viability. (The ad does not mention that Kansas law has exceptions after the gestational age of 22 weeks to “preserve the life of the pregnant woman” and to prevent “irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function of the pregnant woman.”) These are regulations that most devout abortion rights supporters oppose and that typical pro-choice ads don’t condone. But the ad makers weren’t trying to consolidate the most progressive faction of Kansas voters; they were trying to separate center-right voters from far-right voters.
So, after explaining the status quo, the narrator’s voice—and the background music—gets tense: “This confusing, constitutional mandate amendment could lead to a full ban of any abortion in Kansas, with no exceptions for rape, incest, or a mother’s life. That’s extreme. And goes too far.”
The ad campaign was not all male or all circumspect. One ad followed the “shout your abortion” philosophy, with a mother named Kelsey Walker sharing the story of her life-saving procedure.
“It’s an impossible choice that no parent should have to make,” she begins, using the word choice and implicitly suggesting that she faced a severe medical complication. (As Walker has said in interviews and at rallies, her baby had a fatal brittle bone disorder and would have suffered a painful death soon after delivery, threatening her own life in the process.)
She explains, “I had a three-year-old son at the time, and a husband, who needed me to be very much so alive.” At the same time, a heart-rending card honoring the lost baby, complete with tiny footprints, is shown. There is no debating whether it’s a “baby” or a “fetus.”
Her tone turns stern as she addresses the looming referendum: “But if this constitutional amendment passes, no one in Kansas will have that choice. It could ban any abortion, with no exceptions, even in cases like mine. That’s my story, and I’m not alone.”
Another ad uses the word decision over choice, and it doesn’t come from a defiant activist. It comes from a Catholic grandmother, who expresses her discomfort with the entire debate, in an attempt to identify with the squeamish middle.
“Growing up Catholic we didn’t talk about abortion, but now it’s on the ballot, and we can no longer ignore it,” she says with a hint of frustration. (Though, as a past candidate for the state legislature, a fact unmentioned, she probably was accustomed to discussing abortion publicly.) As with the other ads, she hammers the point that the amendment could ban all abortions with no exceptions, closing with, “If it were my granddaughter, I wouldn’t want the government making that decision for her.”
But perhaps the most striking ad features an elderly male pastor sitting in a pew, talking about “religious freedom.”
The soft-spoken Pastor Jay McKell, wearing a Presbyterian clerical collar, shares that he counsels people “facing difficult personal decisions. Sometimes those conversations are about abortion.”
He sermonizes, “As Christians, we are instructed to love one another, and we do so when we respect and trust women as God does.” His counsel is not a command. McKell is subtly reminding us that there is debate among Christians about the morality of abortion. (In a recent podcast, McKell argued that the Bible doesn’t even have an abortion position.)
In a fantastic sentence that melds freedom to worship with freedom of privacy, McKell declares, “I’m voting ‘no’ on the proposed amendment because it replaces religious freedom with government control.” He plays his pastor card with authority: “Join me and thousands of Christians in voting ‘no.’”
Was the messaging what sealed the deal in Kansas? Trying to parse out which factors mattered in any election is always an inexact science, even more so in a down-ballot campaign that attracted minimal polling. But one on-the-ground reporter, Gabriella Borter of Reuters, tweeted, “Several Kansans I met while door knocking w/ the campaigns said they were personally uncomfortable with/opposed to abortion but didn’t like the idea of their daughter/sister/friend not being able to get one safely if needed. The ‘vote no’ messaging about gov’t mandates resonated.”
This campaign was engineered to connect with Kansans of many backgrounds, particularly potential swing voters who could be susceptible to disingenuous messages from the anti-abortion camp. The driving force behind word choices was not satisfying squabbling factions in Washington, D.C.
But the successful Kansans for Constitutional Freedom campaign does not appear to be a case of real Americans in the middle of the country knowing better than the political consultants in Washington. According to Kansas City PBS’s Flatland, most of the money spent by Kansans for Constitutional Freedom went to “campaigning services and advertising, including a more than $4 million payout to GMMB Inc.,” which is a national political consulting firm with offices on the infamous K Street.
Sometimes, the Beltway hacks know what they’re doing.