Not long ago, only a handful of Johnson County Democrats would bother to show up for the monthly Saturday breakfast at Lucky Brew Grille restaurant in Mission.
Now, there are often as many as 100. In fact, a second breakfast group, held on a different Saturday, has sprung up in southern Johnson County, where about 50 regularly attend.
The two Johnson County Democratic women’s organizations have seen similar jumps in attendance at their monthly meetings, as have the Young Democrats. A Johnson County Democratic fundraiser in 2016 drew about 250 of the party faithful. The most recent event attracted more than 500, according to Democratic officials.
Something big is happening within the Democratic Party in Johnson County, and throughout Kansas. After spending years given up for dead, local Democrats not only have awakened — they are energized like they haven’t been in a long, long time.
There are about 100,000 registered Democrats in Johnson County. That is a surprise to many, because until recently, Democrats have been almost invisible. This compares to about 185,000 Republicans and about 115,000 unaffiliated.
Their shared repulsion at the right-wing policies of certain Republican demons has galvanized the Democrats. Those demons include former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, President Donald Trump (and, by association, U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder of the 3rd District) and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is running for governor.
This newfound energy throughout Kansas resulted in the recruitment of strong Democratic legislative candidates, who campaigned hard in the 2016 election. The Republicans — particularly the conservatives — woke up too late and found a mini-revolution had occurred. Democrats came away with 40 seats in the state House of Representatives, up from 28, and added one to the state Senate, giving them nine there.
Now that they’re back, can Democrats pull off more upsets, especially in their hunt for big game in 2018? While holding on to their recently-won seats in the Legislature, the Democrats are especially hungry to claim the Kansas governor’s mansion and Yoder’s congressional seat.
If they fail, it will not be because Democrats were lethargic and failed to file enough candidates for those offices. Remember 2014, when Democrats put up nobody against Yoder? Thanks to Trump’s unpopularity, the field against Yoder is filled with almost too many Democratic candidates. However, at this time, no single candidate has emerged as a clear frontrunner, which could be a real break for Yoder.
In actuality, Democrats are not fixated on Yoder’s seat — or at least not the party leaders I spoke to. They smell blood from the potential candidacy of Kobach, who they assume will win the Republican nomination for governor.
As one Democratic leader put it, “The fear of Kobach as governor is much greater than the fear of either Yoder or Trump.”
With all their energy and laser-like focus on the governor’s office, Democrats are almost morose over the candidacy of wealthy independent Greg Orman. The conventional wisdom among Democratic leaders is that Orman will come in third.
However, Orman could be a spoiler, robbing Democrats of key votes — enough to put the Republican nominee in the governor’s seat. They fear that likely would be Kobach.
Whatever happens in the two major races, as well as the other contests locally and statewide, it is good to see Democrats alive and breathing fire once again.
The party needs to stay united, and not to splinter off into liberal and centrist tugs of war. They need to stick to messages that do not alienate independents and moderate Republicans, whom they need to attract to win.
Democrats in 2018 will have all the spunk and passion to win — if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot.