For beleaguered Kansas Democrats, shifting the party message to the right apparently was not a popular strategy.
The state Democratic Party was scrambling Friday after their leader, Larry Meeker, suggested just such a “rebranding,” then resigned under intense criticism ahead of a party convention this weekend in Wichita.
The departure of Meeker, state party chairman, came after his comments this week that in order to boost its electoral success, the party needed to alter its appeal for a conservative state.
Kansas Democrats should make room in the party, he said, for people with varying views on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.
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That kicked up criticism across the state and nationally.
The Daily Kos, a liberal blog, countered that progressive ideas were gaining momentum and such rebranding looks “far too much like a white flag of surrender in the adoption of unpopular conservative talking points.”
Tom Witt, co-chair of the state party’s Progressive Caucus and a gay activist, declined to criticize Meeker directly but said, “We look forward to electing a chairman who will support our party’s platform. I’ll let Chairman Meeker’s public statements stand on their own.”
Anthony Hensley, minority leader in the Kansas Senate, said state party officials felt Meeker was putting too much emphasis on “branding and messaging.”
It’s well understood that the party stands for education and for working people and women, said Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, and against what he called Kansas’ unfair tax structure.
“We already have a Republican Party in this state, and it has moved so far to the right that it’s turning people off,” he said. “We need to stand by our values.”
Kathryn Focke, the state party’s first vice chair from Manhattan, will step in as interim chair. A party election to pick a new chairman is set for Oct. 3 in Salina. Hensley said a name that came to mind quickly for him was Lee Kinch, a Wichita attorney who has served as a party vice chair.
In a statement, Meeker said, “My priorities may be diverting us from our primary goal of electing Democrats and restoring common sense to Kansas government.”
Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, called Meeker’s resignation necessary. “There had been talk for weeks that he was going to advocate renaming, rebranding the party and there were a number of us who were very disappointed to hear that,” he said.
The Kansas Republican Party used the conflict between Meeker and the party’s progressive as political fodder, sending out a release Friday that mocked the “Red State Democrats” idea.
Meeker’s resignation was a shock to many, including Democratic Sen. David Haley of Kansas City, Kan., who thought that Meeker’s goal to broaden the party’s appeal in a red state made sense.
“Genuinely surprised,” said Haley on Friday just before he headed to Wichita for DemoFest. “We’ve been looking at methodologies to broaden the appeal, and Larry has not shied from that mission.
“It’s just a fact of political life,” Haley said. “The Kansas Democratic Party in its core values is more conservative on various issues than the national Democratic Party.”
House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs said he had not yet spoken to Meeker. “I appreciate Larry’s service to the Kansas Democratic Party, and I wish him well in his future endeavors,” Burroughs said.
In his comments earlier in the week to the media, Meeker, a former mayor of Lake Quivira, said the state party was looking to “re-message” how it talks about the party and its issues.
“At the end of election cycle, as you well know, we are Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Obamacare, Obama, anything bad they can figure out going on in Washington, and the Republicans brand us,” Meeker said Wednesday to the Wichita Eagle and other news outlets. “That’s not who we are. Kansas Democrats are very different from Massachusetts Democrats or California Democrats.”
Conveying other messages, such as fiscal conservatism, would be a draw, he said.
Meeker has been chairman since March, when re-messaging was a topic at an annual convention for activists and party leaders in Topeka. He was elected to a two-year term to replace Joan Wagnon, party chair for four years. Meeker was a retired vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.
Leaders at the convention said Republicans had drawn much success from connecting Kansas Democrats to President Obama, and Meeker noted that the party lacked a simple message line akin to the Republicans’ “smaller government, lower taxes” mantra.
Democrats haven’t won a statewide or a Congressional seat for several years in Kansas, and they hold less than a quarter of the seats in the state Legislature.
Despite the leadership disruption this week, Haley said, the party’s prospects are promising.
“The Democratic Party is in a prime position to capitalize at the polls in the Legislature this next election season,” Haley said. “There is lots of dissatisfaction with the Sam Brownbacks and the Donald Trumps of the world.”
Brian Lowry of the Wichita Eagle contributed.