Government & Politics

Dave Helling: Kansas Democrats see an opening but fear they can’t take advantage

“I don’t have a candidate yet. We’ll certainly make a diligent effort to recruit someone,” said Kansas Democratic Party chairman Lee Kinch, adding: “Senate seats are difficult.”
“I don’t have a candidate yet. We’ll certainly make a diligent effort to recruit someone,” said Kansas Democratic Party chairman Lee Kinch, adding: “Senate seats are difficult.”

Almost exactly a year from now, Kansas voters will go to the polls to elect a U.S. senator and four members of the U.S. House.

Will they find any Democrats on the ballot?

Party officials say yes. They are busily recruiting candidates and expect to compete for all the federal offices up for grabs in 2016.

Yet with 12 months to go, no Democrat has declared candidacy in three of the state’s four U.S. House districts. The lone Democrat who has announced a campaign — Dan Giroux, in the 4th District in and around Wichita — began his effort a few weeks ago. He has never run for office before.

The outlook in the Senate race seems even more dire.

No Kansas Democrat has announced plans to challenge Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican. If no party member steps forward by the 2016 filing deadline next June, Kansas voters will go at least a decade without any chance to consider a Democrat for a U.S. Senate seat, an apparent state record in partisan futility.

“I don’t have a candidate yet. We’ll certainly make a diligent effort to recruit someone,” said Kansas Democratic Party chairman Lee Kinch, adding: “Senate seats are difficult.”

The lack of Democratic candidates in Kansas is unusual, but not unique. Other states with dominant parties lack credible House and Senate candidates. Georgia has no official Democratic Senate candidate, for example. There is no Democrat in North or South Dakota now running for the Senate, Federal Election Commission records show.

Yet the Kansas ballot is complicated by the circumstances of the 2014 U.S. Senate race. Democratic nominee Chad Taylor withdrew, leaving his party without a name on the Senate ballot.

A second straight election without a Democratic Senate candidate worries some in the party. There was no election for a U.S. senator for Kansas in 2012, and there won’t be one in 2018. The last Democrat to run for the Senate campaigned in 2010.

That means the party won’t have another chance until 2020 if no one makes the ballot next year.

The gap has increased the pressure on Democrats to find a credible candidate against Moran.

One political consultant with a deep understanding of Kansas politics was blunt about the Democrats’ struggle.

“I don’t know how you can call them a major party in Kansas,” he said.

But Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman from Wichita and former U.S. secretary of agriculture, said the problem is solvable.

“There’s no reason why the state Democratic Party cannot recruit quality candidates in all four congressional districts and U.S. Senate race,” Glickman said.

Little success

In fact, the Democratic Party is only the third most popular choice for Kansas voters.

A year ago, there were 777,771 registered Republicans in the state. There were 426,970 Democrats — and 527,132 unaffiliated voters, the second most popular option.

The registration disadvantage means Democrats must run virtually perfect campaigns to prevail, party officials concede. They must find candidates who are well qualified, well financed — and willing to endure grueling district or statewide campaigns, with just a small chance of victory.

Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic U.S. senator since 1932, the longest streak of one-party dominance in the nation. Dennis Moore was the last Democrat to hold a U.S. House seat from the state, and he retired from politics in 2011.

The demographics are daunting. Kansas is a Republican state.

“It’s tough to recruit someone and say, ‘You could be the first Democratic senator since 1932,’ and have them not respond, ‘Maybe there’s a reason there hasn’t been a Democrat since then,’ ” said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka. “It’s got such a stigma.”

House races are a similar challenge. Nancy Boyda, a Democrat, won the 2nd District House seat in 2006 — and lost it two years later. Republicans have held the 4th District House seat for a generation and the 1st District seat for decades more.

Nancy Leiker of the Johnson County Democratic Party said she thought the party had recently found someone to challenge Rep. Kevin Yoder in the 3rd District next year. The candidate bowed out.

“We will have one. We are working on that,” she said.

“Whether we have a good chance of winning that or not,” she quickly added, “is something I hear a lot of debate on.”

The trouble finding qualified candidates and raising enough money for competitive campaigns doubly frustrates some Kansas Democrats because the GOP brand in the state is so tarnished. Gov. Sam Brownback’s well-publicized budget difficulties, they say, should have created an opening for their party’s hopefuls in 2016.

Yet Republicans succeeded in broadly nationalizing congressional and Senate races in 2014, making it harder for a Democrat aligned with President Barack Obama to win in the state. Sen. Pat Roberts made much of Democratic control of the U.S. Senate two years ago and won in Kansas by 11 points.

“It’s a fool’s errand, in most places, to challenge the majority party,” said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. “Kansas is a classic example.”

That reality damages Democrats’ ability to field qualified candidates this year, Beatty suggested.

“The results of 2014 were a body blow to the Kansas Democrats,” he said. “They really thought … people were not happy.

“You can rewind the tape and see what happened on Election Day.”

Genetic Republicans

Rebuilding the Democratic Party in Kansas will take years, its members say. They want to start where it’s easier, at the local and state legislative levels.

Yet they also admit it’s hard to find enthusiastic grass-roots support for a party unable to provide competition for the highest offices the state can offer.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to have a competitive candidate in every single race,” said Paul Davis, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Brownback in 2014. “But it’s also important that voters have choices.”

Glickman, the former congressman, agrees: “If Kansas Democrats cannot produce good candidates in these races, it further weakens the party’s long-term hopes of being a competitive force.”

With a year to go, few names have surfaced as possible federal candidates. Democrats who could raise sufficient funds to compete — Glickman, for example, or former governor Kathleen Sebelius — have shown no interest in running. Davis may be contemplating another try for governor in 2018. Past Democratic candidates with statewide appeal, such as Jim Slattery and Jill Docking, have also declined to take on federal races.

Some Democrats say their party won’t truly become competitive until the state’s moderate Republicans cross over and run as Democrats. Several attempts to provoke such an alignment have shown limited success, however.

Mark Parkinson became a Democrat and succeeded Sebelius in the governor’s office, yet repeatedly declined to run for that office, or any other. Other moderate Republicans have declined to officially join the Democrats — and the Republicans who endorsed Davis in 2014 were severely criticized for their efforts after Brownback won.

“There are so many Republicans who are just genetic Republicans,” Kinch said.

As a result, Republicans have little incentive — particularly at the federal level — to moderate their views. Voting records show Kansas has the most conservative House delegation in the nation, and Roberts’ turn to increasingly conservative views is well documented.

Without a Democratic opponent, Moran will also be free to move as far to the right as he can. Such a conservative stance is doubly beneficial because it discourages a conservative primary opponent from entering the race. A primary is far more worrisome for Kansas Republicans than a Democratic opponent. Roberts nearly lost the nomination in 2014 to Milton Wolf, a tea party Republican who now routinely hammers Moran on Twitter and Facebook.

The dynamic frustrates Kansas Democrats, who believe they could win electoral arguments if they could just get voters to listen.

“Kansas is just in dire straits right now,” Leiker said. “If we don’t have a candidate in every race, we’re hurting ourselves. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Clock ticks

There is still time for Democrats to fill out their slates for House seats, and the Senate seat, of course. The filing deadline isn’t until next June, giving Democrats months to recruit candidates.

Yet in other, more competitive states, the race has been underway for months. Democrat Jason Kander is raising money and making appearances for his challenge to Sen. Roy Blunt in Missouri, for example. Two Republicans have filed to run against U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver in Missouri’s 5th District. A Democrat has filed against U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler in Missouri’s 4th District.

So the clock ticks, and Democrats say they’re listening.

“This is something that’s going to take some time,” Kinch said. “We intend to change the direction of the state.”

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc