The hard-fought campaigns for governor and U.S. senator in Kansas, fueled by millions of dollars, are heating up as the November election nears. The races raise a question that is likely to linger: Is Kansas edging away from its far-right position on the political spectrum?
Two Republican conservatives are struggling against surprisingly strong challenges by candidates who have never made a statewide run. Paul Davis, minority leader of the Kansas House and a Lawrence lawyer, is testing the waters of gubernatorial politics for the first time in a race against Gov. Sam Brownback.
Greg Orman, an Olathe independent and business executive who has never held public office, is giving Sen. Pat Roberts a run for his money.
Both Davis and Orman are polling extremely well. And it is happening in a red state where, over the last quarter century, conservatives have converted the Republican Party and Kansas into havens for their ideological agenda.
The conservatives’ revolt against traditional Kansas politics paid off two years ago when key moderates in the Kansa Senate were swept out of office. That gave the right wing control of the upper chamber.
With Brownback in the governor’s office and a heavy majority of GOP conservatives in the Kansas House, the quest for control of the Capitol was complete.
Brownback and the Legislature were no longer restrained by moderation. Together, they enacted massive tax cuts and a long list of hot-button measures that included more restrictions on abortion.
Despite his success, Brownback alienated many Kansans, among them his fellow Republicans in the moderate wing of the party. Some of them are openly supporting Davis.
Meanwhile, Roberts, who has been in Congress since the 1980s, faced the possibility of a tea party opponent going into this year’s election. Long considered a traditional Kansas Republican, the three-term senator swung far to the right.
That failed to stop a tea party challenge in the August primary, though Roberts won in a hectic campaign.
How could two seasoned Republicans be vulnerable in a GOP stronghold? It may be that Brownback and Roberts are too extreme. And that perhaps Kansans could be starting to move away from the current cycle of conservative dominance.
A recent Gallup poll found that identification with the GOP in Kansas “dropped in the first half of this year to its lowest point since 2009.”
Ideologically, Gallup found that 36 percent of Kansans say they are moderate while 38 percent lean conservative.
“Additionally,” the pollster observed, “one-fifth of Kansans (20 percent) describe themselves as liberal, meaning a solid majority (56 percent) describe themselves as either moderate or liberal.”
That is a significant statistic in this election. By themselves, Democrats and/or liberals can’t win a statewide election in Kansas. Democratic voter registration simply doesn’t match that of the Republicans.
To win, the Democrats must tap into the majority party. The combination has been successful in the past. Democratic governors in Kansas are hardly unusual.
It would be a stretch to conclude that the conservatives’ star is flaming out. Regardless of the outcome on Election Day, the cultural war between conservatives and moderates will continue.
However, the conflict could be markedly changed if the moderates and Democrats continue to find common ground.
Freelancer Bob Sigman, a former member of The Star’s Editorial Board, writes monthly.