Steve Rose

Steve Rose: Moderate GOP and Democrats can regroup in 2018

Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas answered questions last month during a town hall meeting at the Riverfront Community Center in Leavenworth.
Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas answered questions last month during a town hall meeting at the Riverfront Community Center in Leavenworth.

Is there any hope for Democrats and moderate Republicans in Kansas, or are they to remain small tribes doomed to wander the desert?

On the one hand, the Legislature is where all such hope dies. Conservative Republicans have a complete lock on both chambers, and the takeover was of such epic proportions that reversing it anytime soon seems almost impossible.

But the governor’s seat can be in play when Gov. Sam Brownback exits in a few years. Two terms of Sam Brownback at the helm may lead one to think the future is already pre-determined, that after Brownback there will be eight more years of another conservative governor and years after that.

It may not be so. It has not been that long ago that Kansas had a series of Democrats and a moderate Republican. The trend started with Joan Finney, a Democrat, elected in 1991. She was followed by a two-term moderate Republican governor, Bill Graves, and then Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, with her Democrat successor, Mark Parkinson, filling out her second term.

This was a stretch from 1991 to 2010, where the center and left of center were sitting in the top state office. Go back further, and Kansas was replete with moderate Republicans and Democrats running the state. Never before, at least in modern times, has Kansas had an ultraconservative governor like Brownback.

That suggests that this Brownback phenomenon may be fleeting and that his ultraconservative agenda may not be the norm. It is possiblethat there has been a sudden, dramatic cultural or demographic shift among Kansas voters.

I do not believe that. I believe the tide has to do more with Kansans’ strong negative reaction to the election of Barack Obama as president. Conservatives have nationalized the gubernatorial elections, running against Obama, rather than the opponent.

It wouldn’t take much for moderates to recapture the throne. Democrat Paul Davis lost by only 4 percentage points in the last election, and that was right before the state’s budget cratered for all to see. Brownback was nearly ousted after one term.

A strong moderate Republican candidate or Democrat, who can make the case for bringing Kansas back to its roots, can win in 2018. This can be accomplished because Obama will no longer be in office. But the issues must be broadened.

Unlike the Davis campaign, candidacies cannot rely almost exclusively on whether Kansas is funding education adequately (although that is, by far, the most critical issue). Bringing Kansas back to its roots should also mean a number of other things.

The failure to expand Medicaid to the 150,000 Kansans, mostly working poor, is a travesty, particularly because the federal government will foot 90 percent of the bill. And, by the way, Obamacare has been anything but a disaster.

Bringing 300,000 businesses back on the tax rolls is imperative. The conservative Republican tax break is not creating jobs, but it is blowing a hole in the budget. As for the income tax cuts and sales tax increases implemented under Brownback, any moderate or liberal must stay away from that radioactive issue. The tax-and-spend moniker is something to avoid at all costs.

The state needs to enact a sales tax exemption on food. Kansas must stop robbing its highway fund to balance the budget.

Oh, yes, and then there is the issue that no one wants to talk about — abortion. Any moderate Republican or Democrat who is pro-choice must step forward and demand that the state stop weakening abortion rights in Kansas.

The winning issues are out there. And the type of Kansas voters we have known for so long are still out there as well. It just requires the right candidate to spread the right messages.

Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: