On an icy Saturday morning, the second-to-last day of 1990, Democratic House members in Kansas gathered at Washburn University to meet with their party’s leader — Gov.-elect Joan Finney.
Serious business was at hand, but the atmosphere was festive, even giddy, as Democrats dealt with a new, utterly unexpected reality. With 63 members — the bare minimum required for a majority — Democrats suddenly had control of the levers of power in a state that had traditionally scorned them.
I remember it well because I was there.
There was talk of slashing property taxes that had spiked under Republican Gov. Mike Hayden. Finney spoke in grand terms of rectifying economic inequities forged under President Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office.
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“We have an opportunity to make this state a much more receptive state to all economic levels,” the governor-elect intoned that morning.
Heady talk like that is what newfound power brings to a party. Fast forward 26 years and those woebegone Kansas Democrats are sensing good times ahead again maybe for the first time in that quarter century.
Republicans are reeling under the leadership of Sam Brownback, the nation’s most unpopular governor. The state budget remains in shambles. The state Supreme Court is breathing down the state’s neck over school funding, and lawmakers are heading back to a special session to deal with another mess just weeks before the August primaries.
With just 26 members heading into the elections this year, Democrats know that capturing a House majority is a pipe dream. But here’s the question of the year in Kansas: If Democrats can’t make big inroads this year, when will they ever do it?
Democrats insist they’re ready. For the first time in more than three decades, the party filed candidates in all 40 Senate districts. In the House, Democrats covered 75 percent of the seats.
Unlike previous years, when Democrats had to go out across the prairie scrounging for candidates, potential contenders were coming to them.
“They were so upset with what’s going on in the state,” said Kerry Gooch, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party.
The party is organizing too. Some 62 of the state’s 105 counties are put together, party officials say. In 2014, when Brownback was up for re-election, just 20 counties were organized by this time.
“I get volunteers’ sign-ups on a daily basis,” said field director Cheyenne Davis.
Even Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas GOP, wonders if his party can hang onto its dreamlike majorities that have given Brownback cover time and time again.
“We’d be hard-pressed to do better,” Barker said.
He said Democrats have talked with confidence heading into four straight election cycles and they haven’t broken through. But he acknowledges that his rivals have done good work recruiting candidates and building up the party, at least when it comes to statehouse races.
And then there’s Donald Trump at the top of the GOP ticket. In recent years, Kansas Republicans have been wildly successful at nationalizing state politics. That could be tougher this year, although Hillary Clinton provides Republicans with opportunities too.
Democrats remain on the sidelines when it comes to fielding competitive candidates in many federal races, including the U.S. Senate seat up for grabs this year. The party has gone longer than any other in the nation without winning at least one Senate seat.
But one step at a time. The step this year is the statehouse, and Democrats will have to fight through Koch money and the abortion politics that will eventually descend.
Still, this should be their time.
If not now, when?