Local Columnists

Dave Helling: Kansas Democrats need to be bolder, not Meeker

Larry Meeker resigned last week as chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party after suggesting the party needed to think more like its rivals to win, but columnist Dave Helling writes that the first job for Democrats trying to rebuild their party isn’t becoming Republican. It’s finding a way to become relevant.
Larry Meeker resigned last week as chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party after suggesting the party needed to think more like its rivals to win, but columnist Dave Helling writes that the first job for Democrats trying to rebuild their party isn’t becoming Republican. It’s finding a way to become relevant. The Associated Press

Larry Meeker’s decision to quit as chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party tumbled like a weed across the state’s political landscape last week. Meeker had suggested the state’s Democrats needed to think more like Republicans to win.

His poorly-phrased prescription prompted protests from local and national Democrats, who accused Meeker of surrender. Contributors stopped contributing. Activists stopped activating. Voters, the party feared, would stop voting.

Kansas Democrats don’t have a lot of voters to spare. So Meeker quit.

As it turns out, though, he might have been on to something. Sort of.

Belonging to the minority party can be the worst fate in politics. Members of the minority party don’t supervise the legislative calendar or appoint committee chairmen. They pass few important amendments or significant bills. Legislators in the minority party often are little more than the bass players in the band.

That irrelevance can become circular. Not many people want to waste their time running for an unimportant job, and few voters want to cast their ballots for meaningless candidates. Kansas Democrats often end up with less-than-quality candidates and a less-than-enthusiastic electorate because all sides know the real action is on the GOP side of the aisle.

The first job for Democrats rebuilding their party isn’t turning into Republicans. It’s finding a way to become relevant.

Yet at the end of the last legislative session, the few Democrats in Topeka seemed content to let the GOP solve the budget crisis with the largest tax increase in state history.

This made some sense, of course. Democrats didn’t create the budget mess and had no obligation to help solve it. Why go on record voting for any tax hike? Let the GOP own its mistakes.

Yet by admitting irrelevance, Democrats may have guaranteed it — perhaps for years to come.

A comeback won’t be easy. Republicans have far more registered voters in Kansas, and voters are unlikely to be persuaded by Democrats claiming a newfound allegiance to Rush Limbaugh. When given a choice between a faux Republican and the real thing, Kansas voters opt for the genuine article.

But voters might be persuaded by Democrats who promise relevance. Committing to compromise and competence, not ideology, might be the best path forward for a party that has spent many years watching Mick Jagger — from behind.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhellingkc.

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