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Glickman: Close Kansas elections show voters not always swayed by cultural issues

Former U.S. Rep. Dan Glickman
Former U.S. Rep. Dan Glickman

Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, a Democrat and former member of Congress, is scheduled to take part in a discussion Thursday at the Dole Institute in Lawrence. He’ll be joined by former Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah — they’ll talk about political polarization and the midterms.

Glickman recently wrote a piece about Kansas politics. Here it is:

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In 2004 in his best-selling book, my fellow Kansan Thomas Frank asked the question about the one-sided and hardening partisanship back home. “What’s the matter with Kansas?” he asked.

Looking at this year’s elections I would reply, “not much.”

We are witnessing a revival of the long tradition of an engaged public in politics in the Sunflower state.

This conservative-leaning state hasn’t sent a Democrat to the United States Senate since the election of 1932. But while Kansas has remained Republican territory there has always been a strong centrist and populist twinge there. The type of Republican that Kansans frequently preferred was the Bob Dole or Nancy Kassebaum model of cooperation, pragmatism and centrist thought.

But since the 1990s Kansas has experimented with the most conservative elements of the GOP in local, state and federal elections. Frank argues that this is a result of more conservative Republicans in the state emphasizing cultural issues like gay marriage and abortion to bring traditionally populist, working- and middle-class Kansans into their bloc who might have otherwise voted for Democrats or moderate Republicans.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the most conservative candidates have had a successful couple of decades in Kansas.

But the statewide reaction to this multi-decade experiment is the interesting part of the story. Frank’s assertion that the Kansas electorate has become ultra-right wing automatons pulling the lever for culture warriors regardless of the facts on the ground has been called into questions by the coming elections.

Notwithstanding their historical Republican leanings, Kansas voters are paying close attention and examining the races for Senate, governor and even secretary of state based on the results of the incumbents’ tenure and its impact on jobs, public services, the local economy and society.

President Obama’s unpopularity and a national climate favorable to Republicans are still major factors to consider but polls to date have indicated dissatisfaction with incumbents statewide and that could have big ramifications up and down the ballot.

The demographics of Kansas still favor Republicans as the ratio of registered Republicans to Democrats is nearly two to one. With such a dominant advantage in the electorate it’s difficult for a Democrat or an independent to win these races; difficult, but not impossible.

In 1978 the Democratic House Speaker John Carlin defeated then Republican Gov. Bob Bennett in his race for re-election. In 1990 then Democratic state treasurer Joan Finney defeated Republican Gov. Mike Hayden’s attempt at re-election. While Kansas voting patterns historically trend Republican, in truth Kansans are fiscally responsible, of good common sense and not necessarily wedded irrevocably to one political party.

No matter what happens in November, this result can be positive for Kansans of all political persuasions.

Sen. Dole, a legend of Kansas politics, once told me that elections are therapeutic. I believe he was referring specifically to his closely run race in 1974 against former U.S. Rep. Bill Roy. Roy gave him a tough race and Sen. Dole won by the narrowest of margins.

In my view such a close call gave him the incentive to pursue more pragmatic policies, and do the job with greater civility and courtesy. Sen. Dole never gave up his conservative values, but he did embody a more inclusive approach to the Kansas electorate; he was a Senator for every Kansan, not just some Republicans.

No matter how the elections turn out, let’s hope the winners can follow his bipartisan lead.

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