Some 26 years after the “Summer of Mercy,” abortion was a decisive issue in this week’s congressional special election – maybe the decisive issue – although it didn’t come to the fore until an ad blitz by the national Republican establishment in the campaign’s final days, analysts say.
Wichita political scientists say the election shows abortion remains the biggest single issue to bring conservative and Christian voters to the polls to vote for Kansas Republicans.
Hours after Republican Ron Estes won a relatively narrow victory over Democrat James Thompson, Kansans for Life – the state’s most powerful anti-abortion group – said its positions on abortion were the difference. Estes is a staunch opponent of abortion, while Thompson says women should be able to make their own choice.
“Pro-life Kansans clearly provided the margin of victory for Estes, maintaining an all pro-life representation for Kansas in the U.S. House and Senate,” the KFL said its post-election analysis.
There’s a good argument for that point of view, said Russell Fox, a professor of political science at Friends University in Wichita.
Fox said the 11th-hour blitz of abortion ads attacking Thompson “certainly made a difference in this one.”
“I would actually argue that overall, abortion is not the knock-down, drag-out, KO issue that it was 20 years ago,” Fox said. “But obviously, that doesn’t mean it can’t influence things. It was certainly an influencing factor this time.”
Although almost all Kansas elections have an abortion component, the power of the issue to influence a Kansas election was particularly on display in Tuesday’s special election to fill the seat vacated when Mike Pompeo became director of the CIA.
The election tally in Sedgwick County – where about two-thirds of the votes were cast – shows a major swing in voting before and after the abortion ads saturated the weekend airwaves.
Thompson won the advance-vote ballots – which are less influenced by last-minute advertising – by 14,351 to 8,630. But among Election Day voters, he lost 30,789 to 26,942.
Although Thompson did eventually win Sedgwick County, his margin wasn’t enough to overcome Estes’ advantage in the smaller rural counties that make up the rest of the district.
Estes ended up winning 53 percent to 46 percent, the smallest margin of victory for a Republican in 20 years of 4th District elections.
“You can bring in all the usual caveats, talk about how this is a special election, talk about low turnout, that sort of thing,” Fox said.
“But if you’re looking toward a single issue that will be guaranteed to motivate a certain number of people to get to the polls, there probably isn’t any other single issue that works in this part of the state as well as abortion works.”
A ‘church town’
Single-issue politics, particularly abortion, have “always played a major role,” said Ken Ciboski, a professor emeritus in political science at Wichita State University.
“Wichita encapsulates that,” said Ciboski, a Republican. “Wichita is absolutely one of the most anti-abortion places maybe in the whole state, maybe in America.”
It’s been that way since the “Summer of Mercy” in 1991, a 46-day protest featuring abortion clinic blockades that led to almost 2,700 arrests and solidified Wichita as a national capital of the anti-abortion movement.
“I think these things resonate very heavily in this district,” Ciboski said.
“Wichita is very much a church town. I’ve had people come here from other places in the country, and they drive around and they say one of the first things they noticed was there’s a church on every corner.”
Republicans outnumber Democrats about 187,000 to 96,000 in the 4th District, and political analysts were predicting an easy win for Estes.
But Thompson, making his first run for office, mounted an unexpectedly robust campaign playing off voter dissatisfaction with Gov. Sam Brownback.
In the final week, the National Republican Congressional Committee dominated weekend television with ads claiming that Thompson supported federal funding of abortions, late-term abortions and abortions for parents to select the gender of their offspring.
Thompson called the ads false and tried unsuccessfully to get the TV stations to take them down.
Fox, a Democrat who moderated the February debate the ad was based on, called it a gross exaggeration of what Thompson actually said about abortion.
“No one was talking about it. Estes wasn’t talking about it. Thompson wasn’t talking about it,” Fox said. “It was the NRCC. It was that last-minute infusion of money and that scramble to come up with some ads that will turn the tide in the election. And rightly so, because it apparently helped.”
He said the ads were “at least as much about a kind of ideological rallying as making any kind of particular point,” and part of that was linking Thompson to unpopular procedures rather than just pointing out his “pro-choice” stance.
“They needed to put language out there that would remind people that abortion is a big deal: Remember, you’re a Republican, you’re a conservative Christian, abortion motivates you, well, you need to be motivated,” he said.