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After Late Push, Pro-Choice Democrat Will Run in Kansas Special Election

Erin Heger

Pro-choice activists called and emailed Democratic Party delegates prior to the nominating convention, voicing concern with anti-choice candidate Dennis McKinney, regarded as a favorite among the party establishment.

Democrats in Kansas selected pro-choice civil rights attorney James Thompson as their candidate for the upcoming Fourth Congressional District special election, thanks in large part to pro-choice activists pressuring the party to eschew an anti-choice Democrat.

Supporters of Planned Parenthood, attendees of the Women’s March in Wichita, and other pro-choice activists called and emailed delegates prior to the nominating convention, voicing concern with anti-choice candidate Dennis McKinney, who was regarded as the favorite for the nomination among the party establishment.

“The results of last week’s nomination clearly showcased what can happen when the often all-too-silent pro-choice majority in Kansas is mobilized and energized,” Laura McQuade, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, said in a statement. “Voters are more aware than ever of the need for comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services in their communities and how extreme political minorities threaten the availability of this care.”

About 300 Democrats filled the room for the nominating convention, where 39 voting delegates split almost down the middle between Thompson and McKinney. Thompson ultimately came out on top with 21 votes to McKinney’s 18.

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“We are thrilled that a strongly pro-choice, pro-civil rights, pro-health-care candidate won the nomination,” McQuade said. “Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes mobilized in the community and on social media ahead of last week’s nomination and will focus media and outreach efforts in the coming months to ensure James Thompson is the next representative of the fourth district in the U.S. Congress.”

Thompson will face off against anti-choice Republican State Treasurer Ron Estes in the April 11th special election to fill the congressional seat vacated by Republican Mike Pompeo, who now serves as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Activists are looking ahead to Election Day, recognizing a chance to rekindle Kansas’ progressive roots and send a reproductive rights advocate to Washington.

“This is an important seat and this is prime time for voters to come out and express their support for women’s rights as well as other issues that are important to moderate and liberal people,” said Julie Burkhart, president and CEO of the Trust Women Foundation, a pro-choice and reproductive rights nonprofit based in Wichita. “I think we have a candidate who will stand up for those values.”

Kansas is regarded as a deeply conservative state and hasn’t voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. However, the majority of Kansans hold fairly moderate political views and support reproductive rights, Burkhart said.  

“I feel like there has been a loosening up of attitudes toward abortion over the years. I feel that people are more willing to talk about it,” Burkhart said. 

Trust Women routinely conducts canvasses to gather information about voters and their attitudes toward abortion. In 2015, organizers knocked on 28,000 doors in the Wichita area and identified 4,300 supporters of reproductive rights, Burkhart said.

Kansas voters elected pro-choice Democrat Kathleen Sebelius as governor in 2002 and 2006. Democrat Dan Glickman represented Kansas’ Fourth Congressional District before losing his bid for a tenth term in 1994.

“A majority of voters in the fourth district and across Kansas support all of the programs and services that Planned Parenthood provides,” McQuade said. “Nearly 8,000 Planned Parenthood supporters in the fourth district openly oppose candidates who align with the antiquated and divisive policies of [Kansas Gov.] Sam Brownback and Donald Trump. This upcoming April special election is the first opportunity in Kansas to take back a congressional seat by electing a person who reflects the will of the majority and who supports access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care.”

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