Kansas Democrats — particularly in Johnson County — are rising from the dead. It looked for a while as if they had given up hope of ever capturing any important office. It seemed Republicans had a virtual lock. But now the Democrats, for the first time in a very long time, are showing signs of life. They’ve waged heated campaigns in Tuesday’s primary elections, with most of the focus on races for Kansas governor and the 3rd Congressional District, which mostly includes Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
It has been 28 years since there has been a real Democratic primary contest for Kansas governor: In 1990, Joan Finney beat former Gov. John Carlin. Putting aside that one contest, it was 40 years ago — back in 1978 — that there was last anything like a serious multi-candidate battle for the Democratic nomination for governor.
This year is a rarity, with three serious candidates in the race. After the departure of Sam Brownback, who was perhaps the most unpopular governor in Kansas history, Democrats have pounced on what they see as a widespread revulsion with past Republican leadership. Democrats think enough voters will be seeking a drastic change to carry them to victory.
Coincidentally, there is also a highly-charged Democratic primary race for the 3rd District congressional seat. With the intense unpopularity of President Donald Trump revealed in statewide and national polls, Democrats believe they can attract enough moderate Republicans and unaffiliated voters, while increasing Democratic voter turnout, to beat Republican incumbent Rep. Kevin Yoder in November’s general election.
According to county election officials, Democrats are increasing voter registration at a much faster rate than Republicans or unaffiliated voters. While the total number of registered voters in Johnson County is up 4.6 percent since 2016, Republican registration is up only 2.2 percent. Meanwhile, voter registration of Democrats is up an impressive 8.7 percent. The increase in unaffiliated voters matches the 4.6 percent figure, but they cannot vote in the primary unless they switch to one of the two parties.
Perhaps this Democratic fervor is responsible for the significant increase in overall advance voting in Johnson County. The sharp increase there feels like “a rocket out of a chute,” said Ronnie Metsker, Johnson County election commissioner. State election officials have also seen an increase in advance voting over the usual, although they say the increase is not nearly as great elsewhere in Kansas as it is in Johnson County.
The Democratic Party is clearly mobilizing. Committee precinct positions have been filled at a much higher rate than usual. Historically, most of those positions have been left unfilled by Democrats. This time is quite different, according to Democratic Party leaders.
The large number of serious Democratic candidates running for governor and Congress has triggered expensive Democratic primary campaigns, filling the airwaves and mailboxes with targeted ads. This should increase awareness about Democratic Party issues. The all-out mobilization, according to party officials, also includes an aggressive ground game, where volunteers are aggressively contacting other Democrats to get out the vote.
If Democrats stand a chance in November’s general election, they will need to maintain the same momentum after the primaries. Supporters of the losing Democrats will need to stick together in wide support for their nominees. They will need a large turnout, in contrast to the very low levels they’ve seen in past primaries.
Although I have nearly always voted for Republicans, it is still uplifting to see a previously dormant, defeatist party back in the game. Vibrant contests, both in primary and general elections, are always healthy for our system.