Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Is the Kansas political landscape changing?

It seems as if for the past 6 years, since Kathleen Sebelius took over as Governor, that we've been somewhat frozen in time politically in Kansas. Due to her huge cash advantages and the overall mood of the nation, Republicans in general and conservatives in particularly, have been somewhat on the defensive even in a red state like Kansas.

Now, why is this?

Some of this is was bound to happen, in our opinion. First of all, the one-party rule of the 90's was unlikely to sustain itself because constant inner-party squabbling usually results in the other party making up ground, and they have. Secondly, and related to the first point, is that due to the one party rule, a lot of liberals were hanging out in the Republican Party because that was the only path towards getting elected in Kansas. These "RINO's" (Republicans In Name Only) resulted in the party not being able to have either have a consistent message or consistent leadership, and also, many volunteers were simply tired after the primaries, resulting in defeats in the general election.

Now, with the rise of the Democratic Party in Kansas, many of these liberals have found a more comfortable home there. This isn't a criticism, mind you -- that's where they should be. Parties are not meant to be mere political organizations, they are meant to be organizations of people with a like-minded philosophy, even if they sometimes disagree over particulars on issues. When parties lose that philosophical identity, everything else falls apart and it opens up the door for a party with a philosophy (and the Democrats do have one, even if they do not admit it) to rise.

Also, the Democratic Party, frankly, has done a good job in fielding candidates. Now, they might not always win or be of the highest quality, but the first step towards building a party is at least fielding candidates in races, and they have done so. This resulted in 2006 victories in Districts 18 and 16 in Johnson County, as well as in the 2nd and 3rd congressional Districts.

Now, that said, some of the Democrats success in Kansas is a mirage and as a result, signs are beginning to a political realignment in Kansas that will favor conservatives. Now, this might seem strange if you read media reports that seem to indicate conservatives are in retreat -- but a further examination of the political realities in Kansas point to, at the very least, some real opportunities for huge conservative gains in future cycles.

Let's first examine each of the Democrats major political figures -- Sebelius, Lt. Gov Mark Parkinson, AG Steve Six, and Congressmen Dennis Moore and Nancy Boyda. Of these, only Sebelius came to power independent of other factors. Originally elected to insurance commissioner in 1994, an overall huge Republican year, Sebelius was the Democrats one shining star in Kansas. She was able to use that status, and her considerable political skills, to motivate Democrats -- and she then took advantage of a split Republican party in 2002 (which was a three way primary for the GOP) to defeat Tim Shallenburger in November. Due to her fundraising prowess and the Republicans disorganization and fundraising problems, she was able to coast to re-election in 2006, and overall down year for Republicans anyway. She remains a large threat should she choose to run for the U.S. Senate in 2010.

Of the others, each has a rather unimpressive rise to power:

Lt. Gov Mark Parkinson -- a former State Representative whose seat was oddly, replaced by Kay O'Connor and now Lance Kinzer, and State Senator who was replaced by a now conservative-safe-seat in Karin Brownlee, has been off the political radar since 1996. Having never run a tough race in his life, he is a bit of a political bore who is not even that popular in Democratic circles who owes his political status exclusively to Sebelius, and who many observers feel would be a weak Governor candidate in 2010, whether it be against Ron Thornburgh or more likely, potential powerhouse in U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, a conservative.

Attorney General Steve Six -- A political newcomer, he was appointed by Sebelius after former formidable figure Paul Morrison resigned in disgrace early in 2008. Six, who is untested in any electoral sense, will likely face a very stiff challenge from the Republicans in 2010, probably from a conservative. Conservatives are well motivated to win this seat back, so if they can find a candidate who can unify conservatives while appealing to independents and rule-of-law Democrats, they can win this seat.

Congressman Dennis Moore -- Moore, along with Sebelius, is the Democrats other success story in Kansas. However, people forget how he won -- in 1998, the public was voting against Republicans largely due to the unpopularity of the impeachment proceedings against Clinton. Moore, due to that and a split within the Republican Party, defeated Vince Snowbarger. He then won narrowly in 2000 (against a then-popular Phill Kline) and in 2002 (against Adam Taff), but has since largely coasted. This year he faces State senator Nick Jordan, who in a Republican year would have a strong chance, but faces an uphill battle this year due to the overall mood of the country and the fact Moore simply has 10 years of incumbency and a reputation (even if undeserved) of being a moderate. No doubt, he has good political skills and comes across well and has had a fundraising and media advantage that is hard to beat. However, Moore came to office due to overall political winds -- and has not risen any higher. Many observers feel that Moore is looking for a way to retire and that Dems have begged him to keep running, largely because they have no bench in the 3rd District and have been trying to find a successor who could defeat what will surely be the first motivated Republican party in nearly a decade. Point is, this seat could easily become conservatively held once Moore leaves (whether to retire or possibly run for Sam Brownbacks seat) -- its only a matter of time. It will be interesting to see if the Republicans and Democrats can find a decent candidate for their parties.

Congresswoman Nancy Boyda -- Boyda, much more so than even Moore, came to power based on good luck. Crushed in 2004, she ran against Jim Ryun again in 2006, was able to capture a very anti-Republican wind and defeat Ryun, who by almost all accounts ran a poor campaign that took Boyda for granted. Now, Boyda faces Lynn Jenkins, a moderate, well speaking Republican State Treasurer, who even in this bad year for Republicans, stands a good chance of defeating the incumbent, who has largely been an embarrassment in Congress. Should Jenkins win, the seat will probably go back to safe Republican as the Democrats, much like in the 2nd District, have no bench here. (Side note -- it should be noted that if Jenkins wins, Sebelius will be able to appoint Jenkins replacement, therefore perhaps creating another Steve Six situation).

So, you see where we're going here -- the Democrats officeholders are all fairly weak, their one star is term limited, opening the door for Republicans to rise to power again. Now, the question is -- which type of Republican will it be?

Let's first look at the Governor's race. It is likely that U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, the conservatives superstar in Kansas, is going to make the run for Governor. The conservatives have never held the governorship, so this is going to be a huge opportunity for a major political shift in Kansas. Even with Brownback's fight with conservatives on immigration, the fact is on every other issue he is rock solid, and he has been making friends traveling around the state helping out legislative candidates. While Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh has tried the same, despite being in office for 12 years, his lack of a major race (his toughest fight was from Kay O'Connor, who simply didn't have the financial resources necessary to run a statewide effort) and status is unlikely to defeat the machine, name Id, and political muscle that is Sam Brownback. For the general, Mark Parkinson wouldn't have a prayer even if he were to be the nominee -- many think that Dennis McKinney would be the choice for the Democrats.

The other major race in 2010 will surely be the U.S. Senate race. Both parties will have a serious decision here. IN the case of the Democrats, will their superstar Sebelius run? Or, if Obama wins, will she be in his Cabinet? Hard to say. We believe she will run for the U.S. Senate but she would then have to run against either Congressman Todd Tiahrt or Congressman Jerry Moran, both of whom would be formidable. If the Republicans can avoid a primary, this would be a huge fight and conservatives would be extremely motivated, particularly if Tiahrt could emerge. Even Moran, who although conservative is not as much as Tiahrt, would be exciting.

A ticket led by Brownback and Tiahrt would be a conservative force not seen in Kansas since 1994, when both originally came to power. If Moore were to retire, conservatives would also likely emerge in the third and fourth congressional districts. If Tiahrt opted to stay in the 4th and Moran ran, then you might see someone like State Senator Tim Huelskamp -- a dedicated conservative, emerge in District 1 -- remember, Huelskamp raised money for Congress back in 2006 before Moran decided not to challenge Sebelius.

This political force would likely lead to conservative opportunities in other races as well. Of course, you'd have the Lt. Governor, probably a state legislator who was a rising star. It is likely that all the statewide offices would be "open" or at least held by someone who hadn't actually won a race before, such as Six or possibly a new State Treasurer. Insurance Commissoner, Secretary of State, Attorney General, and State Treasurer would all be open for conservatives eager to run on the coattails of a Brownback/Tiahrt or Brownback/Moran surge. The moderate Republicans would surely field candidates, but if the conservatives field effective candidates, the mods are likely to be overwhelmed in the primaries by a motivated conservative base.

This also has effects at the legislative level. Even this year, as we look at the State Senate, we see conservatives emerging. Mary Pilcher Cook, Jeff Colyer, Ty Masterson and Dick Kelsey are all likely to win their seats. Steve Abrams, Steve Fitzgerald and Jim Zeller are all strong candidates poised to win victories on November 4. In addition, two Senators who voted for the Morris leadership team last year -- Roger Reitz and Roger Pine -- are very vulnerable, and Julia Lynn -- whose vote is up for grabs -- is in danger as well. This could very well mean conservatives win control of the State Senate.

In the House, things are open. In Johnson County, conservatives could very well win seats in District 18 and District 22 over former party switchers Cindy Neighbor and Lisa Benlon. Democrats, though fielding candidates county-wide, are unlikely to see any pickups, or if they do, it will be limited to 1 or 2.

And even in the District Attorney races -- conservatives Steve Howe in Johnson County and Eric Rucker in Shawnee County -- have excellent chances at victory in this increasingly hot area of electoral politics in Kansas.

Now, will all these seats go conservative? Probably not. But, for the first time in 15 years, 2010 represents a real opportunity for a change in the political landscape in Kansas. The message here is that conservatives, depressed from recent losses, should simply be patient, fight the fights that need to be fought, knowing that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel.