Michael Ryan

After Kobach and Brownback, how can Kansas conservatives rebound and win in 2020?

To amend a famous phrase, what’s the matter with Kansas conservatism?

The website for the Kansas Truth Caucus, a coalition of conservative state legislators, touts “Limited Government, Individual Liberty, Free Enterprise and Traditional Values.”

But if these are truths that underlie American preeminence — and many of us think they are — then why is the Republican Party having such a hard time selling them?

In 2018, Kansas Republicans lost the governorship and saw incumbent U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder surrender the 3rd Congressional District to Democratic newcomer Sharice Davids. This, after a torrent of bad press and condemnation in recent years for key GOP standard-bearers, including former Gov. Sam Brownback and former Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

President Donald Trump, whose policies are still wildly popular on the right — nearly 90 percent of Republicans nationwide approve of his job performance in the most recent Gallup Poll — nonetheless remains a polarizing figure mostly for his comportment. That can’t be helping.

But what’s the matter with Kansas conservatism? Actually, probably not as much as you might think.

It all starts with organization and messaging, says John Anderson, a founder of the Northeast Johnson County Conservatives.

“Conservatives need to wake up and learn the definition of marketing,” Anderson says. “Whether one is running for president of the United States or trying to find a date to the senior prom, it’s all about marketing.”

“Conservatives do a lousy job in general of defending their principles — of explaining, of getting out in front,” conservative Kansas Policy Institute President Dave Trabert says, speaking only for himself.

Anderson notes that like many under-performing football teams, the party needs to improve its ground game, meaning more vitality (and youth and diversity, in my view) from the precinct level up. As well as media-savvy leadership at every level, especially considering how behind the eight ball conservatives feel when it comes to the media.

Trabert, who gets some blowback from conservatives for even engaging the news media, notes the Frédéric Bastiat axiom that, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”

Agreed. Tuning out the media, then grousing about bias, won’t win anyone over. The landscape is the landscape; do what the pioneers did and deal with it.

One also has to wonder about the utility today of the conservative catch-all term “traditional values.” You might know what you’re talking about, but will the listener? As succeeding populations are wont to do, recent generations have leveled a great number of questions about long-held “traditional” values.

Indeed, when I asked social media followers what “traditional American values” meant to them, one replied sardonically about keeping women at home and the racist doctrine of “separate but equal.” Point made. Spell out your values.

In addition, in today’s smartphone society, where a potentially viral video is ever seconds away, Americans’ emotions are constantly in play. Conservatives, Anderson argues, need to learn from their liberal friends and better understand and harness the power of emotion to make their political case.

Those conservatives I’ve talked with largely discount the damage wrought by the antics and adverse press of Kobach, who lost last year’s gubernatorial race to Democrat Laura Kelly. But speaking as a faraway observer at the time — and one who pulls for the above values — the damage appeared evident to me.

The good news for conservatives is there’s no reason to panic. Since 1964, neither party has been able to hold onto the governor’s office after a turnover election: Kansas voters have flipped from one party to the other unfailingly. Plus, as one GOP insider noted, Kansas GOP dominance from 2011-18, when the party held every statewide and federal position, had not been seen since 1902-1910. And with a Democratic governor and member of Congress, Kansas Republicans now have opposition incumbents to track and assail. That can help unify a party.

As Kansas conservatives look to put some points on the board, retaining retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts’ seat in 2020 will be an absolute must for the GOP. And winning Yoder’s old seat and keeping the party’s razor-thin veto-proof majority in the Legislature would also be an important show of strength next year.

The facts show there isn’t much that’s the matter with Kansas conservatism. But the facts don’t have much to say about complacency or dispiritedness.