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Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas politics anymore

Republicans dominate statewide federal races, but there is a potential opening for Democrats

ANALYSIS — While I recently ran through the top Senate races of 2020 and the parties’ prospects, I did not include Kansas on the list.

That omission — an intentional one — brought plenty of reaction, so I thought I’d explain why Kansas is not now on my list of general election contests to watch and what would need to happen before it is.

A little background

The last Democratic presidential nominee to carry Kansas was Lyndon Johnson (against Barry Goldwater) in 1964. The last Democrat to win a Senate race in Kansas was George McGill, who squeezed out a win in a 1930 special election and was narrowly elected to a full term two years later.

Since the end of World War II, the state has had only one very tight Senate race, in the Watergate election year of 1974, when Republican incumbent Bob Dole eked out a 50.9 percent to 49.1 percent victory over Democratic Rep. William Roy.

Six years ago, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, who is not seeking reelection this year, was in a surprisingly tight race with businessman Greg Orman, an independent. National GOP strategists were worried about Roberts’ campaign and prospects, but they dragged him across the finish line with what turned out to be a comfortable 10.6-point victory margin.

Kansas, then, is reliably Republican in statewide federal races, except in the most unusual circumstances. But it can be competitive in gubernatorial contests. The sitting governor, Laura Kelly, is a Democrat, as were Govs. Kathleen Sebelius (2003-2009), Joan Finney (1991-1995), John Carlin (1979-1987) and Robert Docking (1967-1975).

This tendency to be a one-party state in statewide federal races but electorally competitive in races for governor is not unique to Kansas. We have seen it recently in Maryland, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Hawaii.

Voters will send someone from the state’s minority party to Annapolis, Providence, Oklahoma City or Cheyenne to work on local problems, but  not to Washington, D.C., where hot-button, ideological issues often define national politics and where it’s difficult to keep an eye on the state’s elected officials.

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GOP civil war

The Kansas Republican Party has included both moderates, such as Sens. James Pearson and Nancy Landon Kassebaum, and conservatives for many decades. But a full-scale war between social conservatives and moderates erupted in the mid-1990s.

In May 1996, after Dole resigned his seat to run for president, moderate GOP Gov. Bill Graves appointed his lieutenant governor, Sheila Frahm, an abortion rights supporter, to fill the seat. She immediately drew an August primary challenge from Rep. Sam Brownback, an uncompromising social conservative who quickly attracted the backing of national “movement conservatives.” Kassebaum and Graves endorsed Frahm.

Meanwhile in Brownback’s open 2nd District seat based in Topeka, Christian conservative and Olympian runner Jim Ryun faced two moderates who backed abortion rights, one of whom was the mayor of Topeka. All three hopefuls portrayed the Republican primary as a fundamental choice for GOP voters.

In the neighboring 3rd District based in Kansas City, pragmatic Rep. Jan Meyers’ retirement produced a primary bloodbath between conservative state legislator Vince Snowbarger and the moderate, abortion rights-supporting mayor of Overland Park, Ed Eilert, who was endorsed by both Meyers and Kassebaum.

Kansas turned to the right during the August 1996 primary, and in November elected Brownback, Ryun and Snowbarger. The war was on.

Two years later, Graves turned back a conservative primary challenger and won reelection, and Democrat Dennis Moore ousted Snowbarger in his suburban district. Ryun hung on to his seat until 2006, when he was upset by Democrat Nancy Boyda.

Kansas, like every other state, has been affected by partisan polarization. Donald Trump carried the state by more than 20 points. But Brownback’s controversial tenure as governor and Trump’s alienation of moderates in the suburbs have given Democrats an opening. In addition to Kelly winning the governorship in 2018, Hillary Clinton narrowly carried the state’s 3rd District in 2016, and two years later the district elected a Democrat to the House, Sharice Davids.

In addition, some moderate Republicans have switched parties over the past couple of years. In late 2018, two GOP state senators — Barbara Bollier and Dinah Sykes — and state Rep. Stephanie Clayton left the GOP and joined the Democrats.

But before Democrats get too giddy about the GOP’s vulnerabilities in Kansas, they might want to consider the most recent party registration numbers in the state.

According to the Kansas secretary of state’s office, as of Oct. 1, 2018, the state had 812,009 registered Republicans (44.7 percent), 457,493 registered Democrats (25.2 percent) and 532,009 unaffiliated (29.3 percent). That’s only a minimal change from registration figures on Feb. 1, 2008.

All this history and all these numbers demonstrate how difficult it would be for a Democrat to win a Senate race in Kansas in 2020. But “difficult” is not “impossible.”

Until we know the two nominees, there is simply no need to waste time handicapping a hypothetical contest.

The big ‘but’

But the Kansas Senate race could bear watching if the state GOP nominates former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. With an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a law degree from Yale and a doctorate from Oxford, you might think the ambitious Kobach would have the perfect résumé. But he is one of the most polarizing people in politics today, both in Kansas and nationally.

Kobach, who has become a leading anti-immigration voice and a strong defender of the president, won the 2018 GOP gubernatorial nomination by a few hundred votes. He defeated the sitting governor, Republican Jeff Colyer, who succeeded to the office following Brownback’s resignation.

But Kobach went on to lose the general election by 5 points to Kelly, who was endorsed by Kassabaum, Graves, Frahm and other moderate Republicans.

If Kobach wins his party’s Senate nomination in August, Democrats should have a chance to pull an upset in the fall. Rep. Roger Marshall, state Senate President Susan Wagle and businessman Bob Hamilton are also in the Republican race, and any of them would be a clear favorite if nominated.

Democrats have united around party-switcher Bollier, a doctor from Johnson County, an upscale suburb of Kansas City. The video launching her campaign was good. In it, she identified herself in the state Senate as a “moderate Republican” who became a “pragmatic Democrat” after Brownback as governor “tore our state apart” and the GOP “turned its back on Kansas values.”

Bollier would be a perfect contrast to Kobach. But Kansas is still Kansas. Without knowing the GOP nominee, I’m not sure where the race is or will be. Because of that, I’ll just sit back and watch the fisticuffs until the Republican contest is clearer.

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