life after roe

She Beat Abortion Foes in Kansas. Then She Did It Again in Kentucky.

Rachel Sweet (center) with members of the Protect Kentucky Access team. Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Sweet

If there’s anyone to single out for helping support abortion rights on Election Day, it is Rachel Sweet, the Protect Kentucky Access campaign manager who defeated an anti-abortion amendment. Just days after beating a similar ballot measure in Kansas this summer, the first test of its kind post-Roe, Sweet packed up her things and traveled 500 miles to the Bluegrass State in hopes of replicating that success.

“I saw where the polling and research was not fundamentally that different from what we had seen in Kansas, but it was not getting the same level of investment and attention,” she said a few days after the midterm elections. “I was like, Well, this is obviously a thing that can be done. Why is it not getting the same shine? It was a place where I could actually make a difference and be helpful.”

As someone who was born in Ohio and has spent most of her adult life in Kansas City, Missouri, Sweet knows that red states aren’t a lost cause when it comes to progressive ideas. “We don’t need everybody to think that abortion is a moral imperative,” she said. “We need people to think that it shouldn’t be banned. Clearly, when given the opportunity, voters, including voters who are more conservative, will protect the legal right to abortion.”

Sweet spoke at length with us about how to run a successful abortion-rights campaign in a conservative state. She noted that changing hearts and minds on the issue is a long game, though, and Kentucky’s Amendment 2 defeat doesn’t signal that it or other states like it are on the brink of legalizing abortion again.

Tell me about Kansas’s “No” campaign on banning abortion and how it evolved over time.

When the Kansas Supreme Court issued its decision in 2019 saying that the state’s bill of rights protects the right to an abortion, the organizations that would become Kansans for Constitutional Freedom started getting together. We knew the anti-abortion side was going to try and do a constitutional amendment. They weren’t quiet about that. In 2020, the groups that would eventually become KCF were successful in stopping it from getting on the ballot in that election.

But in the 2021 legislative session, it passed. There was a different legislature — a lot of the moderates retired or got knocked off in the primaries, and we didn’t have the numbers to stop it a second time. Managing KCF just seemed like a natural progression after previously leading that coalition in 2020. We used 2021 to build the infrastructure of the campaign. Any sort of voter contact you do really far out from an election has diminishing returns, because normal people don’t think about these things a year out. There’s a lot of stuff that needs to go into these campaigns: What’s our legal structure? What’s our budget? How can we raise money? One of the reasons the campaign was successful is that we invested heavily in research. It’s easy to look at the election results on August 2 and say, “This is clearly about Dobbs.” But there was a lot of prep work that went into building the campaign when the future of Roe was a big question mark.

How so?

You build campaigns based on the information you have at the time. And the information we had was “We have to build a strategy that gets us to 50 percent plus one under the assumption that Roe is not going to be overturned and that is not going to be front of mind for voters when they go into the voting booth.” We built a campaign around that and around the voters that we have in Kansas — relatively conservative and, in primary elections, older, whiter, and more conservative than the state as a whole. We knew that we were going to have to persuade a lot of people who did not necessarily self-identify as pro-choice. We knew that, because it was a primary election and turnout is typically low — small changes in who turned out could make a big difference.

Turnout in the 2018 primary was 27 percent. So what if we could get it to 30 or 35 percent? We did a lot of polling throughout the race. The last tracking poll that we got back was the first time that we were at 50 percent — two weeks before the election. On Election Night, when we were at 59 percent, I just didn’t believe it. The messaging and the strategy got us to the win. The turnout — especially among young voters and women — got us to the margin that we had.

It seems like the groundwork was there, but Dobbs gave you a second wind. How did things change between June 24, when the Supreme Court decision came down, and the primary election on August 2?

June 24 was a really hard day. A lot of people thought that this issue was largely settled and that what states were doing was marginal — like nibbling around the edges — so they could stay disengaged, not worry about it too much, and just assume that things would be fine. Roe being overturned was a big wake-up call, and we definitely saw that in our campaign. Grassroots donations increased a ton. We saw volunteers coming out of the woodwork. Kansas had this direct and immediate way to plug in those people who were feeling angry, sad, and scared. Like, “Oh, you’re worried about this? Come knock on doors with us. This is something you can do that will actually protect this right for you, for your daughters, for your neighbors.”

The day after Dobbs, our regularly scheduled phone bank went from 15 or 20 people to over 100 people. Among them was a woman from Kansas who is an expat living in Thailand. The time difference was 12 hours or something, so the phone bank was starting at 5 p.m. local time and it was, like, 5 a.m. for her. It was our moment to really make sure that people understood this one is for all the marbles. This is the last stand. And people really rose to the occasion.

After such a long campaign, other people would probably want to take a break. But you picked up and left to run a similar “No” campaign in Kentucky. What was a surprising difference between both states?

I started with Protect Kentucky Access on August 15. I didn’t plan on doing it — I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do after August 2. I was laser-focused on Kansas. It was the first campaign I had ever managed, and it was a labor of love. Like, it’s home. It’s going to directly affect people I know and love and possibly myself one day. You never know.

Kentucky is a little more socially conservative, honestly. The results show that — look at the U.S. Senate race and statehouse races despite Kentucky’s voter registration being almost split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. In Kansas, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats almost two to one. It’s just a proof point that this issue goes way beyond partisanship. On paper, you just look at the voters — Kansas is more Republican than Kentucky. But if you actually look under the hood, Kentucky is a bit more conservative. Kansas has more of a libertarian lean to it, I think.

How did that play into shaping the messaging for each campaign?

The two big messages in both campaigns were “We need to keep the government out of our personal medical decisions” and “This is about banning abortion with no exceptions.” The ratio was different in each state. Kentucky already banned abortion with very limited exceptions. People were way more understanding of the idea that passing extreme restrictions impacts medical care for pregnancy complications and miscarriages. They were already seeing it. There was more of an empathy message that we could deliver. We did a lot more first-person abortion storytelling, because there was just a little more receptiveness.

In Kansas, we made the argument, which is 100 percent true, “This is about banning abortion with no exceptions.” But we’re trying to protect the status quo, right? We don’t need to change anything about the constitution in Kansas. This is about the government getting involved in your personal business. We don’t need that.

So how do you generate support in what people perceive as hard-core conservative areas?

Abortion is a really complex topic, and people bring a lot of nuanced feelings and baggage to the issue. It’s hard to craft a message that appeals to every single voter. What we have seen broadly is that there are people who personally wouldn’t choose to have an abortion and don’t really like it. They don’t like talking about it. They generally think it’s bad. But they understand that there are cases where it is the best of a series of not-good choices that one can have before them. They understand that, regardless of how they feel personally, the anti-abortion side has gone way too far and it’s not the government’s business what women and their families decide to do about a pregnancy.

There is a tension within the reproductive-rights movement about what to do about those people. This moment in time is an opportunity to get them engaged in the fight. There’s no reason to talk to people who are super anti-choice — the true believers. They legitimately think abortion is murder. They’re not movable. But most people are not in that camp. They’re somewhere in the middle. A lot of people, women in particular, are realizing, Oh wait, I actually could be impacted by this. Instead of inflicting my personal beliefs on everyone else, I’m going to say, “Vote ‘no.’ It’s not my decision to make for somebody else.” There is a real opportunity to talk to those people and to create a space for them to have those feelings and still vote in a way that we would consider to be pro-choice.

It seems like the big lesson from both campaigns is that you need to create this coalition of strange bedfellows who will not agree on many issues most days but will agree on abortion rights.

When voters can vote directly on an issue, they put their partisan identities aside a little bit. Most people, whether they are solidly Democrat or Republican, don’t necessarily agree with their party on everything. It’s possible to put your partisan loyalties aside and vote “no” on Amendment 2 and still vote for Rand Paul. So how do we make people understand that the politicians who are impacting these policies are dangerous? That is a problem that Democrats need to solve for themselves in some ways.

But nonpartisan ballot-measure campaigns are one of the best pathways that we have for protecting or restoring access to legal abortion. It is a state-by-state strategy. And it’s clear that people can compartmentalize their feelings. It’s not unique to abortion — Missouri legalized weed and voted for a bunch of Republicans. People will support progressive policies and conservative candidates.

One of the things that any state can do, because there are states considering pursuing these proactively, is build a strong, broad coalition now — with some of your traditional reproductive-rights partners, like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, but also with other issue-advocacy groups. That’s necessary for getting to the scale of voter contacts that will have to happen for one of these things to be successful.

Doing the research to figure out the messaging that is going to work with voters is important. In Kansas and Kentucky, there were differences in how we deployed the message. If you’re in a more purple state, that message is going to be different. There is really an opportunity here for states to explore if ballot measures are a good path for them for restoring access. It has to be a very state-specific approach, and it has to be led by in-state partners who are already on the ground doing the work. There is absolutely a path to victory for these things in a ton of states, but it’s not the same path for everyone.

What are some of the challenges that you think these proactive measures could face?

It’s easier to get people to vote “no.” If people don’t fully understand the impact of a measure or they are on the fence about it, they’re more likely to vote “no,” because it signals no changes. It’s the safer vote to take. You have a bigger hurdle to climb when you are asking people to change something and vote “yes.”

I was excited to see the results of the Michigan ballot measure. I thought they were going to win, because it seemed to be a really well-run operation. But I don’t know that a proactive measure in Kentucky might have had the same level of success. For those proactive measures, you really have to have a very thorough research process, and you have to be willing to accept that maybe 2024 isn’t the year that we do them. There may be multiple cycles of planning, fundraising, and building people power to get them across the finish line. That doesn’t mean that more conservative states shouldn’t pursue those, because everyone has an obligation at this point in time to investigate whether a ballot measure is the right tool for either protecting or restoring access in their state. But I think that it is a really uphill climb for proactive measures in more conservative spaces.

It took the anti-abortion movement 50 years to overturn Roe. I don’t think it’s going to take us 50 years to rebuild abortion access in this country, but we have to accept that we cannot undo this overnight. It is going to take a concerted effort. That’s why we just have to take the wins where we can get them and keep doing the work, because it is not something that we are going to solve in one election cycle.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

She Beat Abortion Foes in Kansas, Then Won Again in Kentucky