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Dion Lefler: Is the end of Value Them Both the start of something much bigger? Time will tell

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What do you even write when the most powerful lobbying force in your state not only loses a pivotal election, but gets their heads handed to them?

The immediate reaction is shock.

The secondary reaction is that something may be changing; that we could be seeing a generational shift where the pressure politics of the past don’t work anymore.

In January, when more than two-thirds of our state representatives and senators put the Value Them Both Amendment on the ballot, it looked like the proposition that couldn’t possibly lose.

Conventional wisdom — that Kansas is an anti-abortion state — was on their side. And the anti-abortion Republicans who dominate the Legislature stacked the deck as much as they could.

They deliberately put it on a primary ballot because historically, August primaries have been sleepy affairs where Republicans vote and not much of anybody else does. And the people who wrote the initiative got to write not just the amendment, but the ballot statements for and against it.

Most of all, they had the backing of a seemingly invincible lobby. For the two decades-plus that I’ve covered Kansas politics, Kansans for Life has called the tune at the statehouse and the Legislature has lined up to dance to it.

KFL has been a kingmaker in the statehouse and they were key players in purging just about every pro-choice moderate GOP legislator from the Capitol.

And if there are any pro-choice Republican lawmakers left in Topeka, the mere threat of being primaried by KFL and the anti-abortion right was enough to cow them into submission and vote to put the amendment on a primary ballot.

But it all came crashing down Tuesday when the voters got to weigh in.

As of this writing, with 97% of the votes counted, the score was “no” 59%, “yes” 41%.

The primary architect of the defeat of the Value Them Both Amendment is the United States Supreme Court.

Over the years, pro-choice Kansas has been complacent — letting the Legislature pass more or less whatever it wanted on abortion, secure in the knowledge that the fundamental right to choose was protected at the federal level.

In June, when the high court overturned Roe v. Wade and threw abortion to the states, pro-choice Kansans — who according to polls were always the majority — finally woke up.

All of a sudden, the only thing standing in the way of a total abortion ban was a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that the Kansas Constitution contained a right for women to control their bodies and their pregnancies.

In the Value Them Both campaign, pro-choice had a lot of catching up to do.

While the anti-abortion side entered the ring with a fully scripted, heavily funded and well-mobilized campaign, pro-choice marchers took to the streets with hand-painted signs because they didn’t have enough professionally printed ones to go around.

Another thing that happened was that younger Kansans, who until now had little interest in state politics, came out in droves for this election.

When I covered the “no” side’s election watch party Tuesday night, I ran into civic activist Jane Byrnes. She appeared in a “vote no” campaign ad and also served as a poll worker Tuesday.

She was shocked by the sheer number of younger voters. “I’ve worked primaries before and hardly anybody voted,” she said. “And they were all old people.”

I didn’t cover the Value Them Both election watch. Like almost all serious journalists in the state, I was banned by the campaign from attending.

So all I can tell you about their thinking is that they blamed — you guessed it — the mainstream media.

According to their written statement, the media “propelled the left’s false narrative, contributing to the confusion that misled Kansans about the amendment.”

That’s not what happened at all.

I can only speak for myself, but I never believed their infinitely repeated protestations that they didn’t want to ban abortion, just make reasonable regulations about it.

I didn’t believe it because they didn’t even believe it themselves.

Apparently, about six out of 10 voters didn’t believe them either.

So, is this a one-off election to protect a particular right that is of particular interest to young voters, or is this a generational shift with newly energized participants demanding a change in the status quo?

It’s hard to tell at this point.

But if everyone who showed up for Tuesday’s election shows up in November, this could be the start of changing everything.

It could be the beginning of reversing the trend of extremism that has marred Kansas state politics for the last five election cycles.

And it could bring back the days when Republican lawmakers were allowed to be independent thinkers, not just power lobbyists’ puppets living in constant fear of being purged as “RINOs” — Republican In Name Only.

On Tuesday, we became a better state because voters showed up and had their say.

Here’s hoping we can do it again.

Dion Lefler, opinion editor of The Wichita Eagle, has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business as a reporter in Wichita for 23 years.

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