YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

Why conservatives Republicans control Johnson County

Updated: 2013-01-24T01:13:45Z

In the last four years conservative Republicans have taken near-total control of state and federal positions in Johnson County.

How did they do it?

To hear U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder tell it during a recent two-hour discussion at a downtown Overland Park coffee shop, the conservatives now truly represent the majority of Johnson County’s residents and business leaders.

The moderate Republicans who used to hold many state Senate and House seats? Wiped out in the 2012 fall elections.

The U.S. House seat that Democrat Dennis Moore held for 12 years? It’s Yoder’s now.

Oh, and all that talk by people (like me) who claim the pro-life, anti-Obamacare, small-government Yoder and other conservatives don’t really represent the longtime progressive, tax-friendly Johnson County residents?

Statistics show that those Johnson Countians are a dying breed, for now.

President Barack Obama gained only 40 percent of the Johnson County vote in 2012, down from 45 percent in 2008.

Yoder took 74 percent of Johnson County’s votes against a Libertarian in 2012 (no Democrat even ran). In 2008 Yoder beat Democrat Stephene Moore, Dennis’ wife, with 65 percent of the county vote.

In state Senate and House seats, most moderate Johnson County Republicans who still held office were swept out in the 2012 primaries. In the general election, most Democrats were no match for the conservative GOP candidates.

In the 2010 U.S. Senate GOP primary, Johnson Countians embraced Todd Tiahrt — endorsed by Sarah Palin, the Tea Party Express and Karl Rove among others — by a 49 percent to 45 percent margin over Jerry Moran. But Moran won the statewide primary and general election.

Last week Johnson County Sheriff Frank Denning said he would oppose any federal gun control laws, including limits on high-capacity magazines. The reaction from Johnson Countians to the right-wing views of Denning, recently re-elected with no opposition? Zip, nada. Denning knows his words will play well in 2013 with plenty of residents.

The growing clout of conservatives could have a big impact on the Kansas City metropolitan area’s future.

Over the last 40 years moderate business leaders, such as those in the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, have promoted the county as a great place to live and as a solid place to bring or start a company. Affluent residents have flocked there, providing top-notch schools and excellent basic services.

But if Gov. Sam Brownback and his conservative supporters in the Legislature succeed in holding a hard line on state spending for schools, Medicaid and other social services, that could affect the quality of life in the county. In the long run, that could slow growth in Johnson County, goes the thinking.

As for the future, it holds more good news for conservatives; their population is booming outside the Interstate 435 corridor.

There’s little promising news right now for the moderate GOP and Democrats.

It’s possible that the conservatives’ policies eventually could turn off county voters. However, Democrats and moderate Republicans would still have to work harder to be elected in the future.

The nonpartisan Johnson County Commission hasn’t moved as far right when it comes to spending cuts. Neither have most city governments. Still, Commission Chairman Ed Eilert is less progressive and champions a less-expansive budget than former chair Annabeth Surbaugh, whom he beat in 2010.

Looking to the future, Yoder says don’t worry: Brownback and the Legislature won’t crash the Kansas or Johnson County economies. Businesses will continue to come to the county as state income tax cuts are phased in.

Yoder’s biggest critics may see that view as delusional. But the evidence shows that Johnson County for now is in the grips — or the loving embrace — of conservative politicians.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or email abouhalkah@kcstar.com. He blogs at voices.kansascity.com and appears on “Ruckus” at 7 tonight on KCPT. Twitter @YaelTAbouhalkah

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