Syndicated columnist Susan Estrich: Beware what you wish for
Two days after Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a ban on abortion in their state, the other front-runner for the Republican nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, went out of his way to cement his hard-core anti-choice stance. On Thursday, he issued an order suspending a county prosecutor who had signed a pledge not to prosecute doctors or patients for abortion-related care.
There are all kinds of reasons why what DeSantis did is wrong: punishing a prosecutor for disagreeing with the governor on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion is unprecedented, according to local legal experts, who point out that the prosecutor is accountable to the voters, not the governor. The prosecutor in question has been elected twice. He signed a similar pledge last year not to prosecute those who provide medical care given to transgender people.
As for DeSantis, he has signed into law a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy with no exception for rape or incest. That makes sense -- not if you care about women's health, in which case it makes no sense at all, but if you buy the conventional wisdom about Republican primary politics.
Generally, primaries and especially caucuses skew toward the most ideological voters. Democrats skew left; Republicans skew right; moderates treat primaries the way casual watchers treat spring training, which is to say that they wait until the World Series to really pay attention.
It follows that you can't go wrong in a Republican primary by going all the way to the right on an issue like abortion. Or same-sex marriage. And if it's always the economy by November, you can always ignore the social issues and count on most moderate voters to do the same.
But then there's Kansas. The tornado that touched down there on Tuesday may well signal weather to come. It's not just that the pro-choice side won decisively in an overwhelmingly Republican state. It's how they won.
A stunning number of people turned out to vote, in numbers literally comparable to a general election. This is a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats among registered voters by nearly 2-1, that Donald Trump carried by 15 points and that hasn't supported a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson. According to a Washington Post analysis, some 14 counties -- where nearly a third of the state's population live -- backed Trump by 20 points in 2020 and voted no by 13 points on Tuesday. In a primary election. These were primary voters, which is the shocking part.
Much is being written about the impact of Kansas on the coming midterm elections, and whether abortion initiatives on other states' ballots may produce similar turnout and voting patterns. Maybe it was just a coincidence that the prediction markets are more rosy this week about Democrats holding the Senate. But it's not just Congress that's at stake.
It's also the next presidential election. Conventional wisdom would tell you that you can't be too far to the right on abortion in a Republican race. The challenge is not to go so far to the right that you get branded as an arch ideologue. DeSantis is already taking that risk, but the bigger one may be a miscalculation of the Republican primary electorate and what it may look like in two years. The bad news for DeSantis: It might well look like Kansas. The bad weather could spread for Republicans as their fondest wish -- the overruling of Roe v. Wade -- turns into an electoral disaster. Beware what you wish for.
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