On Election Day, Kentucky voters defeated an anti-abortion constitutional amendment in a state that’s been represented by two Republican senators for the past 25 years and has voted for Republicans in nine of the last 11 presidential elections. How did voters defy conventional wisdom and defend abortion rights? The key was organizing, through which volunteers connected deeply, authentically, and vulnerably with voters about abortion—an issue that Democrats have avoided talking about for years, while the Christian right has been using it effectively as a base-building flash point.
At our national grassroots organization, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), we organize white people away from the lies of the right and into fights for racial and economic justice. SURJ was founded in Kentucky, and we are invested in the long-haul work of regaining governing power in this state. To defeat the constitutional amendment, SURJ joined a multiracial coalition, Protect Kentucky Access, and launched a robust voter outreach campaign, calling 110,000 voters and holding 20,000 one-on-one conversations. In the end, the ballot initiative lost by a 67,000-vote margin.
Defeating an amendment that would have enshrined a near-total ban on abortions into the Kentucky Constitution seemed at times like a political long shot at best and a nearly certain loss at worst. Kentucky, a state that’s been a mainstay of Republican power-building for the past 30 years, is 87 percent white and has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. In April, the Republican supermajority in the statehouse passed a law restricting abortion in most cases, which was then backed by the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade. In the Appalachian, eastern part of the state, corporate extraction, union busting, and political neglect have harmed the environment and left people with diminished economic opportunities. Many people in the region haven’t had a phone call about an issue that matters to them, never mind their door knocked, for decades. Meanwhile, the right has invested billions in the state, in local universities, conservative advocacy groups, and Republican candidates. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has held power for decades. Given the right’s near stranglehold on political power, local progressive organizations knew that they would have to join forces in order to have any chance of winning. SURJ joined organizational partners including Sister Song, Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates, Granny’s Birth Initiative, Kentucky Health Justice Network, Fairness Campaign, ACLU of Kentucky, and Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice to form Protect Kentucky Access to fight back. As an organization committed to organizing white people into campaigns for multiracial democracy, SURJ’s role was engaging voters in reflection about how access to abortion affects them. The conversations we had and the resulting win are a lesson in how we can and must engage white people to stop the spread of white nationalism and authoritarianism.
We reached out to tens of thousands of voters who live in highly rural areas, and we saw a significant impact in the counties we prioritized. Take, for example, Boyd County, where SURJ and Kentucky People’s Union volunteers made over 15,000 calls and knocked on several hundred doors. The margin in support of Kentucky’s constitutional abortion ban was one percentage point in Boyd, whereas its most-immediate geographic neighbors had much larger margins in support of the ban: 8 percent in Greenup County, 14 percent in Carter County, 18 percent in Elliot County, 30 percent in Lewis County, and 32 percent in Lawrence County. This difference shows that when we invest time and resources to have conversations with voters in working-class, small-town, and rural communities, we can bring white voters to our side.
Through what we call a “shared interest” model of engagement, our highly skilled member-volunteers moved a full 25 percent of people who initially supported the constitutional abortion ban into voting against it. Volunteers connected deeply over the phone and in person, asking about the voter’s initial plan to vote, and if they weren’t yet voting no, continuing to listen and connect: “Can you tell me more about that…?” We asked each SURJ member to identify their own “shared stake” in abortion access before they begin their calls. As one of our volunteers said, “People with wealth and means will always be able to access abortions, but what about those where the cost and time of a trip to the closest abortion facility could mean losing a job or a home? We need to take better care of each other.” Recognizing that shared stake creates an opportunity for grounded engagement with voters based on shared experiences, even if the volunteer, or the voter they call, will themselves not ever need an abortion.
Our volunteers talked with men who said they were pro-life at the beginning of the call and, through listening and answering questions, realized they felt strongly that no one should have their right to decide what’s best for their body taken away. Those men committed to joining us in voting no. A SURJ member, Mary, shared one of her calls: “My last call of the night, I spoke with a woman who was pro-life (she said it again and again), but also related to me a fairly harrowing list of miscarriages and life-threatening pregnancies that have been very prominent in her family.… She ended by saying, ‘I wish it never had to happen, but if it comes to it…I’d rather have my daughter alive.’ She was grateful to me for clarifying the amendment and said she would talk with her husband and girlfriends about it too.”
Over the past 40 years, the religious right has been successful in creating a “pro-life” identity. But when we listened deeply and helped voters recognize their stake in the issue, people voted against the state’s enforcing the well-funded, multi-decade agenda of the anti-choice religious right.
As we turn our attention to winning in 2024, centrist Democrats will argue that in order to win white voters, we need to avoid “tough issues” like trans rights, policing, and immigration. Our experience in Kentucky shows us that white voters will come with us when we show up and listen to them about issues that impact their lives, help them identify their stakes in the issues we care about, and give them an opportunity to translate their feelings into action.
The religious right and the GOP have used abortion fights strategically for decades, partnering with conservative Christian groups to turn opposition to legal abortion into a moral nexus—an identity, a community of people to do and feel things with in an time when our social lives outside of work or immediate family dwindled in the United States. They poured billions of dollars into campaigns that made it a single-issue rallying cry—giving people purpose, a feeling of moral clarity, and belonging. But that may be starting to change. “Rural people are reckoning with oppressive religion,” Beth Howard, our Appalachian organizing director, said when reflecting on her conversations with voters in this campaign. “They tell us it’s opening them up to exploring ideas and meeting people who they were once told to shun. But they are scared of losing their place of belonging. We need powerful organizations that nourish our spirits, too.” To break the power of the religious right and those at the economic top extracting from working people’s communities, we must provide new ways for people—including white rural people, currently registered Republicans—to have belonging and purpose that is rooted in solidarity, not judgment and scarcity.
We had powerful conversations that helped us win one important campaign, but we can’t stop there. Building multiracial solidarity around vital progressive interests like abortion rights, trans rights, and economic justice is possible. And to do it well, at scale, white people need to recognize their shared interest—what they have to gain—in leaving behind the ways of understanding the world that the right has effectively provided for many white Americans. To do this, we need the kind of infrastructure and organizing we used in Kentucky to scale bigger and complement the goals of the progressive political party and its projects. When we do this, we will create new possibilities—for belonging, and for governance rooted in multiracial solidarity.