Ask nonvoters why they don’t bother to cast a ballot at election time, and you hear the same things over and over.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Won’t make any difference.”
“Waste of time.”
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Well, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let’s turn to the 2016 elections in Kansas as Exhibit 1 for why that isn’t true. That election transformed the state from rock-ribbed conservative to something far closer to what it used to be — moderate in the image of Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum.
This sweeping change happened in one election that’s already had real consequences. Last month, we saw the Legislature come within a whisker of overturning Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a bill that would have increased personal income taxes to balance the budget.
The House overrode a governor who until just a couple years ago ranked as one of the most dominant politicians in state history. The Senate voted to override 24-16, but that was three votes shy of the total needed.
Still, it was a stunning rebuke of the governor and his tax policies. No one would have anticipated those votes even a year ago. It was a remarkable turning of the page.
But this week’s vote to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act was even more surprising. Signing off on a key provision of former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, even with its tens of millions of dollars in federal money and coverage for 140,000 low-income residents, was seen as wholly unlikely in a state as red as Kansas.
Now, the state stands on the brink of doing just that. Brownback vetoed the legislation Thursday, but backers of the measure are scrambling to rally support in hopes of overriding the governor.
This sudden change is a result of what happened last August in GOP primaries, when Brownback loyalists were rejected, and in November, when Democrats gained 12 seats in the House and one in the Senate.
“I’m pleased it wasn’t any worse,” Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas GOP, said on election night.
Those numbers aren’t huge. But they were enough to alter the political culture of Kansas. It happened in a single election in contests sometimes decided by a handful of votes. Who says voting is a waste of time?
This change didn’t happen by accident. A group called the Save Kansas Coalition headed by a former lawmaker with a memorable name — Wint Winter — was one of the forces at work. They played tough, the same way the far right has in recent years.
The group raised several hundred thousand dollars, then blitzed voters in targeted districts with multicolored fliers. One target was Terry Bruce, the former Senate majority leader from Hutchinson. In the fliers, Bruce was dubbed Terry “Tax Hiker” Bruce and tied to job losses and to Brownback himself.
“Terry Bruce likes to say he cut your taxes, but the truth is that just last year, he voted for the largest tax hike in Kansas history!” one flier read.
Winter said the group came together after the 2014 election when Brownback won a contentious re-election battle. Members decided not to give up despite the prospect of another four years of Brownback. But even Winter didn’t expect such dramatic results in the group’s first election.
He remains a realist. As much as Winter would like to think that Kansans have recommitted to their moderate roots, he realizes that last year was a rejection of the Brownback administration. Moderates had something to fight against, and that helped them escape their reputation for nibbling around the edges on issues.
After Brownback’s gone, moderates will need to develop a core message to maintain their momentum. For now, moderates have regained their winning form, and they’ve proved something else.
Elections matter. Sometimes a lot.