Steve Rose

Numbers confirm the loss of a political middle

Among those who have influenced the rise of the conservative ranks in Kansas and elsewhere is Charles Koch of Koch Industries in Wichita.
Among those who have influenced the rise of the conservative ranks in Kansas and elsewhere is Charles Koch of Koch Industries in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle

The “political middle” in the U.S. House has disappeared.

In 1982, there were 344 members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, who were considered moderates. That’s 79 percent.

By 2013, moderates had vaporized. A mere four members of Congress, or 1 percent, could be considered moderate, and that might include Rep. John Boehner, who announced his resignation on Friday.

Those numbers come from the National Journal, a well-respected Beltway magazine.

The most notable effect on the nation was the radicalization of the Republican members of Congress.

The same phenomenon has occurred in the legislatures of both Kansas and Missouri. As the conservatives have taken almost total control, the number of moderate Republicans have all but disappeared.

How did this happen?

Neil Newhouse, a native Kansas Citian, is one of the most renowned pollsters in the United States. I posed that question to him. His answers were poignant.

Congress has lost its moderates, because of two major factors.

One, cable television. He calls it selective media consumption. Fox News for conservatives is the most notable. I would add talk radio as an accompanying media factor.

The second is redistricting.

“Redistricting has resulted in fewer swing congressional districts,” Newhouse said. “More incumbents represent more solidly blue or red districts, making incumbents more sensitive to primaries from within their party.”

A prime example is Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, who represents the Kansas 3rd District. Because of redistricting, Douglas County (mostly Lawrence), a Democratic hotbed, was carved out of his district, leaving Yoder with mostly Johnson and Wyandotte Counties. Yoder has little to worry about facing a Democrat. His threat is from the right in a Republican primary election. Thus, Yoder votes often with the most conservative members of Congress, probably more than he would like.

“The strength of the national GOP waves in midterm elections, especially in swing states, helps shape the state legislature, making them more Republican and conservative,” Newhouse said.

Thus, a swing-state like Missouri was affected by the GOP takeover of the U.S. House in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014.

In contrast, Newhouse explained, in presidential election years — when the governor is elected in Missouri — a much larger turnout of younger voters and minorities helps to contribute to the victory of Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.

In Kansas, Newhouse explains what many of us know. There are two Republican parties — moderates and conservatives.

The Kansas governor is elected in nonpresidential elections, with a smaller turnout. That gives a decided edge to conservative Republican gubernatorial candidates, such as Gov. Sam Brownback.

“In the Kansas legislative races, conservatives have the edge over moderates because GOP conservatives are more committed, more intense, and have a higher propensity of voting in Republican primaries. That edge makes legislators more sensitive to their conservative GOP bases and more sensitive to the threat of GOP primaries,” Newhouse said.

I would add the extraordinary influence of the Koch brothers, the billionaires from Wichita, as another key factor in moving the Legislature far to the right. The ultraconservative brothers have funded Kansas conservatives generously, from governor to state representative. The Koch faction has spent as much as $400,000 on a single state senate primary race.

For those moderates waiting for the pendulum to swing, I believe they may have a long wait.

The trend-line in Congress, in both Missouri and Kansas is very clear. It points to a continuation of conservative dominance.

To reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to srose@kc.rr.com.

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