Local Columnists

Dave Helling: Kansas caucus turnout demonstrates a problem for the state’s Democrats

The Democratic Party in Kansas has been unable to register and turn out minority voters.
The Democratic Party in Kansas has been unable to register and turn out minority voters. skeyser@kcstar.com

On Monday, almost two dozen African-American political and religious leaders implored voters to cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in next Tuesday’s Missouri primary.

The news conference reinforced the conventional political wisdom in the 2016 Democratic race: Clinton does well in states with a strong minority vote. Her opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, does better in “whiter” states, we’re told.

Like all cliches, there is an element of truth in the assertion. But it’s also an excuse. Sanders crushed Clinton in the Kansas caucuses, several analysts explained Sunday, because the state was simply too Caucasian. There was nothing she could have done to change that.

The facts are more complicated — and interesting.

It’s true that the proportion of African-Americans in Kansas is smaller than in the nation as a whole. Kansas is roughly 6 percent African-American, about half the national average.

But Kansas has a big Latino population — about 12 percent of the state claims Hispanic heritage, according to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation. When you combine that number with other minority populations, you discover Kansas is actually less “white” than 21 other states, including — wait for it — Missouri.

No one expects minority voters to cast ballots in lockstep with one another. But Clinton lost the Kansas caucuses by about 15,000 votes. We don’t have exit polls, but it’s a pretty safe bet that had her campaign turned out more minority voters she might have significantly closed that gap.

But she didn’t do that. She never appeared in the state, while Sanders came to the area twice. Clinton’s volunteers did knock on doors and make phone calls, but if there was a major pro-Clinton news conference with black or Latino political leaders in Kansas, I missed it.

Now it’s possible Clinton made a tactical decision to spend time and money in other states with more delegates. That’s a perfectly reasonable choice in a national race where resources are limited.

But the apparently poor minority turnout in the Kansas caucuses exposes a more fundamental problem for the state’s Democrats.

The party holds no statewide offices, or any federal seat. Republicans dominate both house of the state legislature. It isn’t a healthy party.

There are lots of reasons for that, but surely the party’s inability to register and turn out minority voters is one of them. And it matters: Had there been a stronger minority turnout in 2014, Democrat Paul Davis would almost certainly have defeated Sam Brownback for governor.

Kansas would be a much different place had Davis won that race.

To understand this is to understand why Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, has staged a relentless campaign against expansion of the electorate in Kansas. As long as minority turnouts remain low, he knows that GOP hegemony in the state is guaranteed.

But Democrats aren’t blameless. For years, political machines in Kansas’ urban areas worked to suppress black and Latino political involvement to protect patronage jobs for whites. Some vestiges of that Chicago-style politics may still exist in the state.

Minority turnout in some states is also helped by the long public struggle for voting rights. Having battled for the right to vote — sometimes dying for it — Southern minorities are less likely to take the franchise for granted.

And older minority voters tend to be more socially and religiously conservative than many younger Democrats. They’re less interested in abortion rights and same-sex marriage than economic opportunity and racial equality, and they may feel the party has turned its back on those concerns.

The Kansas caucuses suggest Democrats have yet to fully comprehend all of this and respond to it. But as long as minority voters stay home on Election Day, it’s likely that Democrats will remain a minority party in the state.