Kansas Democrats Think Trump, Brownback Can Boost Their 2018 Chances
Kansas Democrats aren’t yet united behind a candidate for governor.
Still, they emerged from their annual convention over the weekend talking confidently about a fighting chance to break the recent Republican grip on key state and federal offices.
“You have to have a perfect storm to elect a Democrat in Kansas,” said Damien Gilbert, president of the Young Democrats of Kansas, a chapter nearly extinct a few years ago but now among the national party’s most active.
“This,” he said, “is that perfect storm year.”
Conversations among party members gathered in Topeka for their state convention invariably turned to the opportunities Democrats have to exploit anger at President Donald Trump and former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
“This is a big election year,” said former Kansas Gov. John Carlin. “I feel pretty good. … I see people involved who haven’t always been involved. I see young people more engaged.”
Along with that young energy, old timers are also re-engaging with a party that’s withered since 2010, when Brownback swept into office on a conservative wave. Now, Democrats sense voter dissatisfaction with the hard right policies that followed.
Take Adrian Polansky: He’s a former state secretary of agriculture and held posts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Now he farms near Belleville.
He said the Topeka convention vibrated with an enthusiasm that reminded him of the 1970s, when Carlin was elected to the first of two terms as governor. In that era, Democrats either held or waged competitive races in three of the five congressional districts Kansas had at the time.
“That excitement has returned,” Polansky said.
Ethan Corson, executive director of the state party since August, said that as he travels the state he sees a chance for Democrats to cash in on frustration with Trump, Brownback and Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer. He recalled a big crowd that showed up on a cold January day in Colby for a debate that featured only Democratic candidates for governor.
“Some of them were Republicans,” Corson said. “[They] told me that they were frankly sick of the Republican agenda and wanted to hear from our candidates.”
The number of candidates seeking the party’s nomination for governor is another sign of Democrats’ early optimism. Seven of them — including Wichita high school student Jack Bergeson — participated in a forum at the convention.
Some in the audience expected House Minority Leader Jim Ward and perhaps former legislator and state agriculture secretary Josh Svaty to go after state Sen. Laura Kelly, who secured the endorsement of former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on the convention’s first day.
Instead, the candidates focused on Brownback and Colyer — who became governor in February when Brownback left for a post in the Trump administration — for stubbornly sticking to tax cuts that forced deep cuts in spending on universities, highways and social programs.
“With the devastating tax cuts he [Brownback] imposed, we have had to sweep every nickel from every fund just to pay our bills,” Kelly said, adding it was “painful” to watch services gutted and infrastructure neglected from her vantage point as the top Democrat on the Senate’s budget writing committee.
Both Colyer and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach are intent on taking Kansas further to the right, Ward said.
Kobach, he said, promises “full-throttled conservatism.” Yet Ward finds Colyer’s politics just as extreme. He noted that the governor has called for a constitutional amendment to further limit abortions, expressed support for arming teachers and has so far refused to reinstate an executive order protecting state workers from discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
“Do we go backwards,” Ward said, “or do we build a better Kansas?”
Svaty’s performance stirred members of the partisan crowd, particularly his call-to-arms closing.
“I don’t care who wins the Republican primary,” he shouted. “I don’t care if Greg Orman” — the successful businessman and failed U.S. Senate candidate vying for governor as an independent — “runs or doesn’t run. We can demonstrate that when Democrats are energized…we can win no matter who else is running.”
Some political analysts contend that if Orman stays in the race as an independent, he could undercut a Democrat’s chances by siphoning off votes from moderates.
Democrats also talked confidently about challenging for other statewide offices and, perhaps, for three of the state’s congressional seats.
State Sen. Marci Francisco and former Google and Uber executive Brian McClendon are competing for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state.
A long list of Democrats are vying for the right to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder in the 3rd Congressional District, which covers the KC-metro area.
"I believe that our time is now."
Wichita civil rights attorney James Thompson is running against 4th District Republican Rep. Ron Estes for a second time. Thompson narrowly lost a special election for the seat in April 2017 that drew national attention as a referendum on Trump.
But the state’s 2nd Congressional District – where Republican incumbent Lynn Jenkins isn’t running for re-election – could be Democrats’ best chance of flipping a congressional seat.
Former Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, of Lawrence, is well-financed and running against a field of Republicans with lower profiles in the eastern Kansas district. He carried that region in his unsuccessful 2014 bid to unseat Brownback.
“We haven’t won a congressional race or a statewide race in 10 years,” he said in a speech to the 2nd District caucus at the convention. “But I believe that our time is now.”
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.