|FEATURE | spring 2007
Scoring a major victory in the culture war, pro-choice candidates in the Cyclone State won handily in 2006. Political strategists, take note.
Election 2006 was properly reported as a Democratic landslide that changed control of the U.S. senate and the House of Representatives. But most reporters and pundits missed a story on one of the most profound turnarounds delivered by voters in over a decade: in Kansas, a place that has been called "The Reddest of Red States", there was nothing short of a progressive revolution. And
that’s good news for women and the issues they care about.
To start with, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius
was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote—against an
anti-abortion Republican bent on abolishing the estate
tax—although less than a third of Kansas voters are registered
Democrats. Sebelius’ lieutenant governor, Mark
Parkinson, even switched parties to run on her pro-choice
platform, despite being the former head of the
state Republican Party.
Two other Kansas Republicans who switched parties
were elected to the state House, cutting into the dominance
of Republicans in the state legislature. And pro-choice
Kansans were relieved to see Phill Kline, an
out-of-control anti-abortion zealot, turned out of the at-torney
general’s office with a 58 percent vote for his opponent,
Paul Morrison—an abortion-rights supporter and
yet another former Republican.
Moderates both Democratic and Republican ended
conservative control of the Kansas Board of Education,
banishing two members who had crusaded to replace evolution
with creationism in the public schools—and the new
board reversed their decision soon after taking office. Finally,
in a U.S. House race, pro-choice underdog Nancy
Boyda ran on a progressive economic platform to defeat
five-term incumbent Republican Jim Ryun.
So what’s up with Kansas? It just so happens I know a
little something about the place. Shortly after I came from
Texas to Wichita in early 1986 to take a job, an abortion
clinic owned by Dr. George Tiller was bombed. Feminists
came together to “fight the right” and, through the local
NOW chapter, we created an escort service for women
entering Tiller’s Women’s Health Care Services—one of
the few places in the country where women can obtain
Despite the bombing, Kansas was not yet the conservative
bastion it became in the 1990s. Traditional moderate
Republicans controlled the state legislature, Wichita’s
member of the House, Dan Glickman, was a pro-choice
Democrat, and Republican pro-choice moderate Nancy
Kassebaum was in the Senate. There was a Democratic
governor in the statehouse as well.
But the bombing was one of several signs that things
were changing. By 1988, as president of Wichita NOW
and leader of the opposition to growing threats to women,
I was concerned enough about anti-choice zealotry to
watch my back every time I went out. The right wing of
the Republican Party started to take over at the precinct
level all over the state, and conservatives began running
for school boards and pushing for “intelligent design”
curriculum in science classrooms.
In 1991, a year after I left Kansas, the right wing of the
state’s Republican party had gained a lot of momentum. Operation Rescue targeted Tiller’s Women’s Health Care
Services for its “Summer of Mercy,” in which thousands of
anti-abortion troops came to Wichita to lie in the streets
and illegally block the clinics, filling the jails. Their actions
culminated in an anti-abortion rally that drew
25,000 to Wichita State University’s stadium.
Over the next decade, the conservative juggernaut
rolled on. Mirroring races all over the country in the 1994
“Republican Revolution,” Glickman was defeated by
right-wing standard-bearer Todd Tiahrt, and a little-known
politician named Sam Brownback was elected to
his first term in the House. In 2002, Phill Kline, a Kansas
City radio host and Rush Limbaugh clone, was elected attorney
general, and immediately tried to force Kansas
health workers to report sexual activity of girls younger
than 16 (the Kansas age of consent). That action was
blocked by a federal judge, but by 2004 Kline had convinced
a county district judge to issue subpoenas for
records of 90 women from two abortion clinics—names,
sexual history, medical details—describing it as a search
for evidence of illegal late-term abortions and child rape.
By the time Thomas Frank’s bestseller What’s the Matter
With Kansas? was published in June 2004, Kansas had become
the embodiment of the Republican “red-state”
takeover described in the book. Frank identified what he
concluded was a lasting backlash against the Democratic
Party on social issues, asserting that working-class and
poor people would now vote Republican in order to fight
the cultural left—even though they might be voting
against their own economic interests. He credited Operation
Rescue’s Summer of Mercy with transforming a moderately
conservative working-class state into a hard-core
bedrock of anti-abortion and right-wing politics, turning
its back on its populist roots.
Pundits proclaimed Frank prescient,
and warned that the whole
country was moving to the right,
with opposition to abortion being
one of the main reasons. If Demo-crats
wanted to win in the future,
they’d better heed the lesson that
they had lost the battle on so-called
values issues and confront the cul-ture
war with a populist economic
appeal. As Kansas goes, Frank con-cluded,
so goes the nation.
This message was not lost on
Democratic Party leaders and the high-priced consultants
they hire. Still smarting a decade after losing both the
House and the Senate in 1994 and the White House six
years later, the Democrats were tired of the political
wilderness. Some figured heeding Frank’s advice would be
their saving grace.
So in 2004 they pursued campaign strategies that ig-nored
many of the issues at the center of the culture war.
They took the Equal Rights Amendment out of the party
platform for the first time in 62 years. Voters
who didn’t already know that presidential
candidate John Kerry was pro-choice
could not discern it from listening to
him on the stump.
The result was a squandering of the
gender gap. John Kerry was defeated
by George W. Bush, and both houses of
Congress remained Republican. Kansas
went for Bush by a margin of nearly 2-1.
Enter Charles Schumer and Rahm
Emanuel. In January 2005, the combative
senator from New York became chair of the
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee,
and Emanuel—a two-term representative from Illinois—
took over its counterpart committee in the House. As a
condition of taking the job, Schumer made a deal that the
party would back candidates in the primaries, departing
from long-standing practice, and that he would have a big
say in which candidates got the nod. By February,
Schumer was courting anti-choice candidates, and some
members of the leadership were saying that Senate
Democrats had no “litmus test” on abortion rights.
As a consequence, pro-choicer Barbara Hafer, a former
state treasurer, was pushed out of the Pennsylvania
Democratic primary in favor of Bob Casey, an anti-abortion
“new Democrat.” Schumer also courted anti-choice
Rep. Jim Langevin for
the Senate race in Rhode Island
over pro-choice Secretary of
State Matt Brown, but Langevin
withdrew after national women’s
groups became outraged. On
the House side, Emanuel was
using the same playbook, his
prize catch being Heath Shuler
from North Carolina—a former
football star and evangelical
Christian opposed to abortion.
Emanuel believed the party
needed machismo, and according to one report “looked for
candidates with strong backgrounds, from sheriffs to sol-diers,
to counteract a Democratic image of softness.”
After the 2006 elections, Schumer and Emanuel were
hailed as architects of the victory. Some of their hand-picked
candidates had won, including anti-choice poster
boys Casey and Shuler. USA Today declared the centrist
New Democrat and conservative Blue Dog Democratic
caucuses to be the big gainers in the new Congress.
But wait a minute. What really happened in 2006?
There is no question that Schumer and Emanuel’s fund-raising
and political skills contributed to the Democratic
landslide—but that landslide was not due to their strategy
of abandoning traditional Democratic values and backing
more conservative candidates. In fact, a number of their
more conservative picks lost, and some candidates whom
they didn’t help—such as feminist, anti-war Democrat
Carol Shea-Porter in New Hampshire—won in spite of
them. Casey and Shuler notwithstanding, the biggest win-ners
in the election were actually progressive candidates
and causes. And Kansas—in a direct repudiation of
Thomas Frank’s theory that Democrats couldn’t win on
cultural issues like abortion—led the way.
While the Iraq War was, without question, the top voter
concern in the national elections, it certainly cannot explain
the rout the right wing suffered in Kansas, nor can the anti-war
vote or the Schumer/Emanuel strategy of painting the
party more conservative fully illuminate what happened.
For openers, seven of eight new Democratic senators
and one Independent are pro-choice (Casey is the excep-tion).
Four more pro-choice governors were elected. The
draconian abortion ban in South Dakota was soundly de-feated.
Voters also turned down ballot initiatives mandat-ing
parental notification for abortions in California and
Oregon. A stem-cell initiative passed in Missouri, and
candidates who ran on support for stem-cell research were
overwhelmingly successful. And minimum-wage hikes
passed on six of six state ballots. Pundits were also wrong
about the Blue Dog Caucus in the House becoming pre-eminent:
Actually, the Progressive Caucus gained many
new members, and is the largest caucus in Congress.
Election 2006 thus gives lie to the notion that the coun-try
is permanently more conservative. What happened,
rather, was that the right wing of the Republican Party went
too far. Like newscaster Howard Beale in the 1976 movie
Network, voters rose up and yelled, “We’re mad as hell, and
we’re not going to take this anymore!” And the majority of
those voters were women. The gender gap was decisive in
2006, with women’s votes making the difference in every
seat that turned over in the Senate and many of those in the
House. If men alone had voted, the Congress would still be
under Republican control.
Although Frank’s general thesis was proven wrong, he
was correct about one point, which Gov. Sebelius’ 85-
year-old father, himself a former governor, made on elec-tion
night: “What’s happening today in Kansas is a
bellwether for what’s going to happen in the future for the
Democratic Party.” And he’s right. The results nationwide
show that progressive issues such as abortion rights, eco-nomic
justice, stem-cell research and a more humane so-ciety
are winning issues—especially among women.
Those issues are popular not only with the Democrats’
base of supporters, but are also the key to siphoning mod-erates
from the Republican Party and attracting a majori-ty
I haven’t been back to Kansas lately, but I was tempted to
go in January when Operation Rescue announced it would
bring supporters from around the nation to “Wichita ’07—
A Cry For Justice.” I wish I had gone to see the fireworks fail
to materialize. Of the “thousands” of anti-abortion protest-ers
conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly had urged to
join the demonstrations, only a few dozen showed up. They
were greatly outnumbered by abortion-rights supporters.
The progressive backlash in my old home state is com-plete.
The right wing not only has lost control of Kansas,
they’ve been virtually thrown out of the state and soundly
defeated in other parts of the country as well. As we
enter what promises to be the longest
campaign season in American
history, let’s hope the candi-dates
are paying attention to
what really happened in
Martha Burk is the Money editor for Ms., and Director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women's Organizations.