He presided over two historic wins for abortion rights — by wooing Republicans

Rachel Sweet is in the 'hard fight' to protect reproductive rights in the red states of Kansas and Kentucky

If there were two voices that sent shockwaves across the US this year, they were in Kansas and Kentucky, and they were both about abortion. The first, the first in-person vote on abortion brought to the public since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, by anti-abortion Republicans in a deeply red state, lost by just over half of the electorate (59% of the vote). ).

The latter, in Kentucky, appears to be a tougher bet: Kentucky is one of 16 US states that, before the November vote, appeared to have more support for banning abortion than protecting it, according to a New York Times analysis from May. It also already has an outright ban. But the ballot initiative, also brought up by anti-abortion campaigners, failed to pass, with 52% of voters rejecting the amendment saying there was no explicit protection for abortion rights in the country's constitution.

One woman is at the center of these two campaigns: Rachel Sweet. The outspoken 31-year-old from Kansas City, Missouri, previously ran Planned Parenthood's public policy for the Great Plains region, before leading campaigns to defeat the Kansas initiative, and then the Kentucky initiative.

The way he summed up both wins was simple: if you want to protect abortion in a red state, you have to target Republicans.

"Democrats are not the majority of the electorate [in Kentucky]," he said. “So you always use the most persuasive messages, so you can get 50% plus your one vote.”

He explains that the key to winning is understanding that no two voters are the same, and to research, test polls, and work on messages that resonate with voters in every state.

In Kansas, Republicans and independents were most affected by messages that focused on how the abortion ban was an attack on personal freedom and represented government overreach.

But in Kentucky, which has had a total ban on abortion since Roe's fall, there's much more room to focus on reality as well as ideology — and it's working.

“There are voters who are far more likely to understand the long-term consequences of these extreme anti-choice policies, because they have seen how prohibition of abortion impacts not only access to abortion care, but [also] care for miscarriage and other areas. health care in a very concerning way,” said Sweet.

He gave the example of a Kentuckian named Meredith, who signed up to tell her personal story for an advertisement for the Protect Access Kentucky campaign, the group's lead No campaign, which the group ultimately didn't air.

"She had a miscarriage. And her pharmacist tried to refuse her a prescription for the medication she needed to treat her miscarriage because it was part of her medication abortion regimen. She actually said: 'I want you to prove that you are actively having a miscarriage.'

“The cruelty of the situation is powerful,” said Sweet, adding: “There's no need to sell people out in a dystopian future. The future is already here.”

Kentucky proved a harder race to win than Kansas, with less institutional support: While campaign donations for the No. Kansas campaign totaled $11.48 million, in Kentucky, they only came up to $6.59 million.

“We are always ahead of our opponents. But it does feel like an uphill battle a lot of the time,” said Sweet, by phone from his Kansas City apartment.

Kentucky's abortion ban is still in effect. But the vote victory could affect deliberations by the Kentucky supreme court, which is weighing whether to enforce the ban.

Sweet has learned to focus on Republican meetings where they are, explaining why the abortion ban is not aligned with their core values — rather than trying to change hearts and minds about abortion itself.

“Abortion is a very complex issue that people have very complex and deep-rooted feelings about. People form their opinions about abortion over time, for many reasons, and that is not something that any campaign, no matter how disciplined the message or funding, can change in the span of three months,” he said.

In January, the state legislature will reconvene in a whole new reality, in which conservative lawmakers are no longer restricted by the constitutional right to have abortions after being guaranteed by Roe.

After two campaigns, which saw Sweet working days over months, he took some time to rest before making his next move. But it's clear he'll have plenty of options if he wants to build on his win through another ballot initiative.

Seventeen states currently allow citizen-led referendums. Abortion is threatened in at least ten of them. Advocates in states such as Ohio, Idaho, and potentially Missouri have discussed carrying such ballots in the coming years.

Sweet admits the upcoming battle will be difficult, and different in each case. In Ohio, Republicans are trying to change the threshold for citizen-led ballots to pass, from a simple majority to a 60% threshold, and Republicans in Missouri have suggested doing the same.

“When state voters adopt or reject policies that conflict with the viewpoints of conservative politicians, it's always an immediate response: 'How do we limit access to the ballot box?'” Sweet said, adding: “They want to take away the people's right to direct democracy.”

Of the more conservative states taking abortion restrictions directly to voters in 2022 — Kentucky, Kansas, and Michigan — none got 60% of the vote in favor of abortion rights.

He pointed to Michigan's victory, where advocates succeeded in enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution with 55% of the vote.

"The instinct of conservative MPs to make it difficult for their electorate to decide on the core issues that matter most to them is essentially an attack on the right to vote."

"It was incredible. You don't usually see a candidate in Michigan win with 55% of the vote. So 60% would be a very scary obstacle to overcome.”

But he pointed out that the success of the pro-choice campaign in recent months demonstrates broad and widespread support for abortion rights across the US, regardless of geography.

“We see across the country, in states that are really progressive, purple states and red states, that people want to protect abortion. We see it in very small states like Vermont and in large states like California,” he said. “It is very clear that the right to abortion is an issue that can be won anywhere. And I'm sure that terrifies the anti-choice politicians who are in office in places like Ohio.

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