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Abortion rights demonstrators in Topeka, Kan., on July, 30.Arin Yoon/The New York Times News Service

Two decades ago, journalist Thomas Frank set out to explain how his home state of Kansas, which had a long history of progressive Democratic politics in the 1900s, had turned reliably red by the turn of the century.

His 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, told the story of how Republicans had deftly seized on culture-war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage “to capture the populist language of social class and present themselves as the embodiment of working-class anti-elitism.” The GOP was aided in this regard by Democrats who abandoned blue-collar workers and farmers, their party’s traditional base, to court urban professionals with liberal social views.

By engaging in the culture wars, Mr. Frank argued, both parties were ignoring the root economic causes of white working-class angst that would eventually put Donald Trump in the White House. Wedge politics was poisoning American democracy.

But after abortion rights activists in Kansas won a decisive victory this week in a statewide referendum, it appears that voters there have finally grown wise to the political tactics that Mr. Frank decried in his book. Tuesday’s referendum was the result of a GOP-led effort to amend the state constitution to supersede a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling upholding abortion rights. The initiative backfired spectacularly on the GOP, as thousands of moderate Republicans and independent voters joined Democrats in rejecting the amendment.

Coming on the heels of June’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to an abortion, the Kansas referendum result provides the most powerful signal yet that many U.S. voters have had enough of the overreaching politicians and judges who have been dividing their country in recent years.

The Kansas ballot measure had been planned well before the top U.S. court had put abortion on the docket. But the June 24 ruling – the majority opinion of which was written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, who deemed Roe to have been “egregiously wrong” and said abortion rights were “not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions” – clearly mobilized Kansans to line up and vote in the August heat.

Turnout for the referendum, held on the same day as the state’s Republican and Democratic primary elections, hovered around 50 per cent – an exceptionally high number for a vote held in August. Indeed, the Republican leadership had been counting on low turnout to win. Instead, almost 59 per cent of the nearly 910,000 voters rejected the proposed amendment, thereby denying the state legislature the ability to ban abortion.

The results suggest that Republican-led state legislatures in many states, which have moved to outlaw abortion or plan to in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe, could face a backlash from voters. Ballot initiatives on abortion are planned or being sought in other states, and abortion rights activists are now feeling more upbeat about their chances.

Until Tuesday, American political pundits largely argued that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization would have little impact on November’s midterm elections. Inflation and President Joe Biden’s anemic approval rating loomed large over the campaign. But what happened this week in Kansas suggests that the Dobbs ruling could in fact mobilize voters who are fed up with scorched-earth politics.

It was Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016 that paved the way for the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who joined Justice Alito and Justice Clarence Thomas to strike down Roe, even though two of the new nominees had indicated during Senate confirmation hearings or in conversations with individual senators that they considered the 1973 decision to be settled law. The new justices’ moves to back Justice Alito’s ruling have reminded countless voters horrified by the Supreme Court’s radical turn that elections matter.

“This vote makes clear what we know: The majority of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and should have the right to make their own health care decisions,” Mr. Biden declared after the Kansas referendum. “Congress should listen to the will of the American people and restore the protections of Roe as federal law.”

It would take meaningful Democratic majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate following November’s midterms to pass such legislation. Until recently, the prospects for that looked dim, with Republicans outpolling Democrats by a wide margin. The gap has narrowed since June’s Supreme Court ruling. Swing-district Democrats can now warn about the dangers of a Republican-led Congress.

Kansas, meanwhile, just showed the country there’s not really anything the matter with it, after all.

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