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Anti-Choice Kansas Democrat Enters Gubernatorial Fray

Erin Heger

Josh Svaty cast ten votes against abortion rights during his time in the GOP-held Kansas legislature.

An anti-choice Democrat in Kansas is running for governor in the party’s first contested gubernatorial primary in two decades, further threatening abortion rights in a state where lawmakers have decimated access to the procedure.

Former Kansas legislator Josh Svaty supported the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act,” which defines life beginning at fertilization. He made ten anti-choice votes during his time in the Kansas house from 2003 to 2009, including voting for a bill allowing an abortion patient’s family member or partner to sue a doctor or support staff to prevent the patient from having an abortion. That measure passed but was vetoed by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D).

“Kansas is the wrong place for any candidate like Svaty who has consistently voted against one of the loudest majorities PPGPV has seen in its fight for sexual and reproductive health care,” Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes (PPGPV) President and CEO Laura McQuade said in a blog post. 

This is the second time this year an anti-choice Kansas Democrat has sought the party’s nomination. Dennis McKinney, a Democrat who has long opposed abortion rights and drawn support from the anti-choice group Kansans for Life, sought the Democratic nomination for the Fourth Congressional District special election in April. After outcry from activists, pro-choice Democrat James Thompson secured the nomination. While Thompson ended up losing to Republican Ron Estes, the narrow seven point margin of victory in an overwhelmingly red district demonstrates the progress reproductive rights activists have made in Kansas.

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“Planned Parenthood has more than 44,000 highly engaged supporters in Kansas,” McQuade said in an email statement. “Access to safe, legal abortion is the will of the majority and a movement that represents a future our country desires. A candidate’s open embrace of abortion rights and support of Planned Parenthood is an asset, not a detriment in the state of Kansas.

Kansas’ GOP-dominated legislature has enacted 30 abortion restrictions since 2010, when anti-choice Gov. Sam Brownback (R) took office. Kansans for Life in 2012 helped oust many rank-and-file Republicans in primary elections with aggressive campaign tactics, ensuring the legislature would be stocked with virulently anti-choice GOP legislators. 

“You find more pro-life Democratic candidates in Kansas than you would perhaps other places,” said Alesha Doan, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas. “It’s not completely unique; there are pro-life Democrats elsewhere and there always have been. But in Kansas, running away from openly supporting reproductive rights is in part political strategy and survival.”

Anti-choice campaign and lobbying tactics, including flyers with vivid imagery and inflammatory language, along with the power and influence of Kansans for Life in the statehouse, have had an impact on how abortion rights are framed in Kansas. Even progressive candidates are sometimes unwilling to support reproductive rights because of this framing, Doan said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of fear because the tactics are really aggressive, and they are more so in Kansas than in other places. As a politician, it’s embarrassing and scary to deal with neighbors receiving awful flyers and your kids being asked questions at school. That kind of harassment has a really big impact on people,” Doan said. “The access anti-choice interest groups have to the governor and legislators also emboldens those groups. But an interest group is only as influential as politicians allow it to be.”

To combat this level of fear, Doan said people should talk more openly about abortion care and reproductive health and separate the stigma and shame associated with these issues.

“Women used to talk about abortion and reproductive health in the 70s and 80s much more openly than they do now, and a big part of that is connecting abortion to shame.” Doan said. “There’s a tremendous amount of silence that has fallen over this issue and as a result you hear one particular narrative.”

Although the Kansas Democratic Party platform includes support for reproductive rights, Svaty told the Kansas City Star in May that he believes he is “like many Kansans” in being “right down the middle on this issue.” However, a majority of Kansans support keeping abortion safe and legal, according to a poll conducted last fall by Public Policy Polling.

For Democrats in Kansas who hold reproductive rights as core values, the primary election is an opportunity to demonstrate what kind of candidate they want, said Burdett Loomis a political science professor at the University of Kansas.

“Svaty’s position is a very difficult one to sell among Democratic voters,” Loomis told Rewire. “Some people might look at this and say the fact that we’re talking about abortion as an election issue for Democrats is kind of unusual. That’s why you have primary elections. Kansas Democrats can express themselves and I think that primary is very much worth having.”

Two-term Democratic Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is also running for governor, and while he hasn’t officially filed, Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward has also expressed interest in running. Ward has a pro-choice voting record. Brewer has not publicly stated his position on abortion rights.

“Reproductive rights are fundamental to the progress of women in Kansas …. To treat the issue as anything less is to tell women they aren’t important to the [Democratic] party,” McQuade said. “Moreover, race, gender, and economic status are tied together. We would never dream of sidelining racial justice nor economic justice in our progressive movement, and neither should we marginalize reproductive rights.”

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