Commentary

What a difference an Election Day makes

Kentucky Republicans should look past abortion and consider legislative reform

November 24, 2023 5:50 am

Senate President Robert Stivers sponsored legislation seeking a study of Kentucky higher education. (LRC Public Information photo)

“People like me have no say in government. They don’t care what we think.”

Such skepticism has long been a popular excuse citizens give for not voting. But if you doubt elections matter, pay close attention to the abortion debate in Kentucky — because Republican leaders have been singing a different tune since it became clear Democrat Andy Beshear would cruise into a second term as governor.

Heading into this year’s elections, most ambitious Kentucky Republicans embraced the full pro-life policy package. That meant a lot more than just cutting off abortion access after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a relatively popular restriction challenged unsuccessfully before the U.S. Supreme Court.

To toe the pro-life line in Kentucky meant defending a “trigger law” that went into effect after the fall of Roe v. Wade. Kentucky law bans abortion entirely — making no exception for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, and giving doctors little leeway when trying to protect a pregnant woman’s health. They’re among the nation’s most-stringent abortion restrictions, but Republicans were unenthusiastic about softening them.

Admittedly, a few did try. State Rep. Jason Nemes sponsored a bill last legislative session to allow exceptions for rape and incest. We’ll never know how popular the proposal was, though, because it died in the Committee on Committees. Republican leaders blocked it from coming up for a vote.

Why risk alienating anti-abortion activists, who’ve historically been critical to the GOP coalition? Failing to keep pro-lifers happy not only could prevent politicians from climbing the career ladder, it might cost them their jobs if more-conservative candidates chose to “primary” them. Policymakers cannot have a positive impact, on abortion or anything else, if they lose.

I saw this terror of pro-life groups firsthand when a UK alum working with one of the statewide Republican campaigns visited my office last spring. Kentucky was halfway through primary season, with little real movement in anyone’s standing, so my former student was curious whether I had ideas for how a candidate might break from the pack.

Rather than bore readers with the many fruitless suggestions I offered — unlike voters, political scientists are right that policymakers rarely care what we think! — I’ll jump to the proposal I saved until the end because it was most obvious. “I know your candidate cannot take a pro-choice stance. But a Republican could stand out by promising to smooth the trigger law’s sharpest edges.”

My visitor’s eyes widened. “No way could I convince the campaign to endorse rape and incest exceptions. The right-to-life people would have our heads!”

Kentucky Attorney General-elect Russell Coleman speaks on election night. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Mathew Mueller)

“Okay,” I replied. “But maybe your candidate could support an exception to protect the health of pregnant women? Make it a pro-life message, pointing out that women also have a right to life that current law jeopardizes. Or pitch it as the smart way to protect abortion restrictions, because failing to respect pregnant women’s medical needs increases the risk of a hostile court decision.”

My former student shrugged. “Not happening. Maybe in the general election. Don’t hold your breath.”

That was then. This is now.

The change started before last election. Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s staunch culture-war platform was hurting him with swing voters.

Beshear hammered Cameron on abortion, releasing a pair of attack ads that — if we’re to believe his campaign manager’s victory tour — influenced voters more than anything else thrown their way. Cameron tried to walk back his position, but the result was a muddle and Beshear exploited that weakness in debate.

The Republican candidate to replace Cameron as AG, meanwhile, openly endorsed reversing parts of the ban late in the campaign.

Pressure to do something surely has grown since Election Day. Beshear trounced Cameron among voters who split their tickets, and abortion politics ranks among the best explanations.

Beshear’s support closely tracked the 2022 vote against Amendment 2, which would have protected the trigger law. When I look specifically at where Beshear exceeded typical Democratic outcomes, it’s the same counties that helped nix that amendment.

So Republicans ought to be worried about abortion. If Democratic state-legislative candidates can muster even a pale shadow of Beshear’s statewide support, they’d make a significant dent in the GOP supermajority.

Meanwhile, pro-lifers should have lost their aura of invincibility. Turnout fell miserably short in the communities that anti-abortion groups and allied churches once mobilized. If the Right to Life people cannot get their constituency excited about stopping a Democratic governor, maybe they won’t be so effective at mustering votes against independent-minded Republicans?

Leaders in the GOP caucus now say they might consider a bill to roll back the most-draconian abortion restrictions. Good for them. My previous Lantern column talked about how Democrats could replicate Beshear’s coalition, but if Republicans move back to where the voters are, the Democratic path to victory gets harder.

That said, maybe it’s time for GOP leaders to look beyond abortion and ask why they find themselves once again on the horns of a dilemma: whether to block legislation opposed by right-wing activists, or let it move forward so vulnerable Republicans can show support for it. Because they’ve been here before with sports betting and medical marijuana.

Party leaders are forced to roll the dice on these political calculations for a reason. Compared to rules operating in many states, the General Assembly makes it easy for leaders to block legislation, even when it’s supported by a chamber majority.

That gatekeeping authority is a source of power, but it comes with a price. It means that if Republican leaders want to give members of their supermajority flexibility to cast votes pleasing to the folks back home, on abortion or other controversial issues, they need to accept responsibility for letting legislation advance — which can anger bill opponents.

Better that Republican leaders give up the power of obstruction and open Kentucky’s legislative process. Yes, sacrificing some clout might let Democrats pass an occasional bill, when they’ve settled on something popular. But it also would protect the diverse supermajority that keeps GOP leaders in power, letting suburban Republicans cast a few socially liberal votes when necessary, while those from Eastern Kentucky could document their economic populism occasionally.

Adopt minor reforms, in other words, and the power of Republican leaders might never have been safer.

And, as an added bonus, maybe letting through more popular legislation would convince voters that they do have a say in government.

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D. Stephen Voss
D. Stephen Voss

D. Stephen Voss is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, where he has worked since 1998. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, specializing in quantitative analysis, and began his research career studying Southern and Kentucky politics. More broadly, his research focuses on the politics of race, ethnicity and culture.

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