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What the national analysis of Kansas left out

Democrats have found opportunities since the GOP civil war in the 1990s

Kansas Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids reacts to the announcement that a proposed constitutional amendment on abortion was defeated during an election watch party in Overland Park on Aug. 2.
Kansas Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids reacts to the announcement that a proposed constitutional amendment on abortion was defeated during an election watch party in Overland Park on Aug. 2. (Dave Kaup/AFP/Getty Images)

ANALYSIS — If you followed the coverage of the Aug. 2 Kansas abortion vote, you probably were surprised by the result, which ended up protecting abortion rights in what was often referred to as a “ruby red” state.

But you might not have been so stunned if you had watched Kansas politics over the past three or four decades.

Yes, Kansas is and has been a generally conservative and Republican state for many years. It has not sent a Democrat to the United States Senate since the 1930s, and a Democratic presidential nominee has not carried the state since Lyndon B. Johnson won it in 1964.

Donald Trump carried the state comfortably in 2016, 57 percent to 36 percent, and in 2020, 56 percent to 42 percent. Moreover, Republicans have huge majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.

But the current governor, Laura Kelly, is a Democrat, as were Govs. Kathleen Sebelius (elected in 2002 and reelected in 2006) and Joan Finney (elected in 1990). Democrats have won four of the last eight gubernatorial contests in the state and six of the last 11.

Republican vs. Republican

Republicans have an advantage in the state, especially when it comes to federal races. But since a civil war erupted in the Kansas GOP in the 1990s pitting conservative evangelicals against moderate Republicans, Democrats have looked for opportunities to swipe a seat here or there — or, in this case, win a key ballot measure about abortion rights — when the GOP goes too far.

In fact, I wrote about this “full-scale war” not long ago, in a May 4, 2020 column:

“In May 1996, after [Bob] 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.’ [Sen. Nancy Landon] 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.”

Conservatives, including Brownback, eventually won that war, but there remain more than a few current and former Republicans who are heirs to the Kassebaum/Graves wing of the GOP. Some of these people now call themselves Democrats, as does Barbara Bollier, a onetime Johnson County (suburban Kansas City) state senator who left the GOP in 2018 and was the Democratic Senate nominee in 2020.

I wrote about Bollier in the May 2020 column, arguing that her prospects depended on who Republicans would pick as their nominee: Secretary of State Kris Kobach or then-congressman Roger Marshall. I believed that Bollier would have a shot against Kobach because he was such a divisive political figure.

Bollier opened her campaign with a video in which she identified herself as a “moderate Republican” in the Legislature who became a “pragmatic Democrat” after the state Republican Party “turned its back on Kansas values.” But when Marshall won the GOP nomination, Bollier’s chances quickly evaporated.

Kobach in 2022

In addition to the gubernatorial race, one other Kansas statewide contest might be worth watching this year.

The controversial Kobach just squeaked out a narrow win in a three-way primary for Kansas attorney general, and he is oozing confidence about his prospects for November, as well as talking about what he will do in office. He will face Democratic nominee Chris Mann, a former police officer and prosecutor who is making his first run for office.

Here is what The Associated Press noted about Kobach’s record and plans:

“Kobach promoted election fraud as a big issue a decade before former President Donald Trump pressed his false claims that fraud cost him reelection in 2020. Kobach was the first prominent Kansas elected official to endorse Trump in 2016 and served as vice chairman of a Trump commission on election fraud. He is promising to pursue such cases if he’s elected attorney general.

“But Kobach’s bigger pitch to Republican voters was that he will look for ways to sue Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration and will file lawsuits even when he believes victory is far from guaranteed.”

The question is whether Democrats and pragmatic Republicans can once again take advantage of Kobach’s nomination to win another election they normally wouldn’t have a chance of winning.

Given Biden’s poor numbers and the midterm dynamic, that is quite a challenge for Mann. But Kobach is a uniquely divisive politician.

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