Kansas Democrats scored critical wins in the last election. Now they’re struggling to transform those victories into Democratic-minded policies, and to hold on to the corners of power they’ve captured.
They meet in their annual convention this weekend to pick party leaders and search for consensus on strategies for governing and see if they can repeat last year’s election wins next year.
“It’s a time for Democrats to celebrate,” said Kansas House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer in an interview, “but we need to keep working and moving forward.”
In 2018, Democrat Laura Kelly won the governor’s race and Democrat Sharice Davids unseated a Republican incumbent to represent the Kansas City suburbs in Congress.
The 2020 election will put all the state legislative seats on the table and a prize Democrats have dreamed of for decades: an open U.S. Senate seat they like to think they can win.
Next year’s races could launch Democrats on a new path to political relevance in Kansas. Or it could leave the party withering into the triviality of the recent past, when Republicans held all the statewide offices, congressional seats and huge majorities in the Statehouse.
At the state Republican Party convention last month, Republicans made clear they’re eager to oust Davids from the 3rd Congressional District in 2020 and set up Kelly for defeat in 2022.
Yet some Democrats think the 2018 elections showed that the party can gain even more ground.
“That’s given folks a renewed sense of opportunity and optimism,” said Kansas Democratic Party Executive Director Ethan Corson. “It is a state that Democrats can win in and can be successful in.”
Republicans aim to make that hard. Kelly’s major budget and education proposals have so far fallen on deaf ears with Republicans, who still hold large majorities in the Legislature and the leadership jobs that come with that.
The initial stumbles haven’t discouraged Democrats, Corson said. He points out that Kelly’s still been able to accomplish things, such as signing an executive order barring discrimination against LGBT state workers.
“I don’t think anybody by any stretch ever thought it was going to be easy for the governor,” Corson said. “I’m still optimistic that she’s going to get those priorities accomplished.”
There’s a way to grease the skids for the governor’s agenda in the future: win more seats in the Legislature. Sawyer, the party’s top leader in the Kansas House, said that needs to be a major focus for Democrats.
“The next chair (of the party) needs to focus a lot on the Legislature,” Sawyer said, “to gain a few more Democrats so we can help the governor out.”
To do that, Sawyer said the party needs to build up its infrastructure into areas of the state where it’s all but disappeared, to raise money and to recruit candidates into more races.
Departing Democratic Party Chairman John Gibson, who decided not to run for another term, started that work. He boosted outreach and said now more than 75 of the state’s 105 counties have an organized Democratic Party.
Democratic state Rep. Barbara Ballard, from Lawrence, said that push needs to expand for the party to gain influence and win elections.
“If you make sure that rural areas are being included in this process, and not just all urban, then it says we are all in this together,” Ballard said.
To make inroads, Democrats will need a message they can sell. Gov. Kelly pitched herself as a consensus builder. She pushed priorities such as Medicaid expansion and education funding while working attract to moderate Republican voters.
According to Ballard, Kelly’s victory last year shows it’s a winning political position that Democrats should continue to use.
“You moved where you needed to move in order to get the job done,” she said. “Why would you want to change it?”
Democrats have had mixed fortunes in recent years. In 2016, they picked up around a dozen seats in the Legislature. They formed a coalition with moderate Republicans that helped roll back tax cuts and increase spending on schools.
In 2018, while Democrats won the governor’s office and the seat in Congress, the party failed to pick up any other statewide offices or House seats. After the election, three Republicans switched parties, leaving the GOP with an 84-41 majority in the House and 28-11 edge in the Senate. The Senate also has one independent member.
Republicans still dominate statewide offices, the Kansas congressional delegation and the Legislature.
At least three people have announced runs for chair of the Democratic Party.
Current party Vice Chair Vicki Hiatt said she’s already had a hand in expanding the party’s infrastructure and recruiting candidates. As chair, she would continue expansion into more areas of Kansas and focus on the fundraising needed to build the party.
She’d concentrate on protecting Davids’ congressional seat and shoot to win next year’s U.S. Senate race.
“We will be working really hard for the U.S. Senate candidate,” she said. “That will be a target.”
George Hanna, from Tecumseh, was a candidate for the House in the last election and said he’d focus on gains in rural areas.
“We all have a job to do — fundraise, develop an inclusive caucus process and find our new representatives,” he said in a Facebook post announcing he would run.
A third candidate, Chris Roesel from Johnson County, touts his experience running for local elected offices.
But the field of candidates is not limited. The Democratic convention will bring together hundreds of party loyalists from across the state. The leadership elections are open to all nominations and more than 200 party members will vote to pick the winner.
“Anybody can run,” Sawyer said. “Quite often it is pretty wide open.”
Stephen Koranda is the Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service Kansas, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.