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Post-Roe urgency throws a lifeline to Kansas Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids in redrawn 3rd District

 Volunteer canvasser Steve Gilley takes pointers from Davids volunteer Nancy Pence
Frank Morris, KCUR/NPR
Volunteer canvasser Steve Gilley takes pointers from Davids volunteer Nancy Pence

The Kansas 3rd District race between Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids and Republican Amanda Adkins is a rematch from 2020.

The newly drawn district, with the addition of rural counties and the subtraction of half of urban Wyandotte County, leans more Republican than it did before. But Davids has a potent advantage that she didn’t have last time.

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade has reshaped the political landscape, and nowhere more so than in Kansas. Davids is running hard on abortion rights, an issue that Kansas Republicans have used to pummel Kansas Democrats for decades.

Davids volunteer Nancy Pence says that ending federal protection for abortion rights has shattered political norms.

“We’re on uncharted ground now,” Pence said recently, stepping away from training new volunteers. “And I think that astute politicians look at this and say, 'This is something I should pay attention to.'”

It would be hard to overstate the impact of the political upheaval in Kansas. The landslide vote on Aug. 2 defeating a proposed constitutional amendment that would have ended protection for abortion rights in the state was a major upset, bringing out a record number of voters to the polls.

A subsequent forced recount funded by supporters of the amendment only confirmed the breadth of the victory for abortion rights advocates like Davids.

“When 50 years of precedent protecting our rights was overturned and removed, people got scared, they got anxious, lives were upended and people got angry,” Davids said.

Davids has tried to harness that anger. Her campaign has held a news conference and produced ads reminding voters that Adkins was on the losing side of the abortion amendment vote.

Davids noted that Adkins was campaign manager for former governor and U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, a staunch opponent of abortion rights, and that Adkins has said she believes life begins at conception.

Adkins’ campaign did not respond to requests for comment. But she has said that Davids is in lockstep with President Joe Biden and supports Biden initiatives that Adkins says have driven inflation.

Adkins hasn’t retreated from her opposition to abortion rights, but she isn't making that clear-cut difference between her and Davids an issue. The Republican and the Democrat have reversed their usual roles in Kansas politics, with the Democrat now on the offensive against a Republican on abortion rights.

“It’s always an issue for the right,” said Kansas political consultant Stephanie Sharp. “Always, always, always.”

Sharp, a moderate Republican who served three terms in the Kansas House , said the abortion ballot issue unearthed a fundamental disconnect between voters and their representatives, showing that the Kansas electorate holds far more nuanced views on the issue than the Republican politicians it has elected to run the state.

And Sharp said that the huge primary turnout exposed a potential voting bloc for a candidate like Davids, who is trying to activate often lethargic middle-of-the-road voters.

“There’s a segment of the population that never ever votes in primaries," Sharp said. "So you take the Democrats and unaffiliateds who voted in this primary, and then the Republicans who voted in this primary, who never voted in a primary before, those are your moderates. And that’s your margin of victory, easily.”

The same kind of political calculus is happening around the country, with vulnerable Democrats from Iowa to Michigan and Pennsylvania to Virginia leaning into abortion rights. Polls show most Americans disagree with the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision and that abortion rights will be a factor when they vote in November.

Pence, the Davids volunteer, said she was concerned that the shock of states like Missouri banning abortion after the fall of Roe would fade before the midterms.

But so far, there’s no indication that is happening.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.