Monday, December 21, 2009

The State of the Conservative Movement in Kansas

Kaw & Border has made no bones about it -- we are a conservative blog. Founded to tell the stories of politics within the Kansas City area, one of our main focuses has been on the conservative movement. As we head into the 2010 election cycle, it is important to address the current state of the conservative movement in Kansas.

In order to address the current state of things as well as prospects for the future, it is always healthy to look back at history to see how we got to this point. Kansas, after all, has been a bit of a political oddity in recent years. A red state, in 2006, it sent two Democrats to Congress in Nancy Boyda and Dennis Moore. In 2002, it sent hard-right conservative Phill Kline and herd-left liberal Kathleen Sebelius to statewide offices in the same election. Even if you look at Johnson County specifically, you'll see diametrically opposed people in new State Senator Terrie Huntington and movement conservative State Senator in Mary Pilcher Cook. And while certainly their two districts are different, to have that major of divergence within the same geographic area is stunning.

The story of the decade of the 2000's is that conservatives were largely on the retreat in Kansas. We never had the Governorship. The only statewide office we held was AG, and we lost that 60-40 in the re-election battle. Conservatives never had control of the State Senate, despite Republican majorities of 31-9 at the current time. While one could argue conservatives had control of the House, they were unable to stop bloated budgets or state-supported gambling. Lynn Jenkins, who has been a fine Congresswoman, defeated Jim Ryun, who is definitely more conservative, particularly on social issues. On the grassroots level, while conservatives have had control of the state party, that movement has not shown itself in terms of a strong bench -- which is most clear in Johnson County, where our support for local offices is slim to none, and where only arguably 8 or 9 of the 22 House and maybe 2 or 3 of the 7 Senate seats are held by a conservative. And we didn't have a credible challenge to Moore (credible being single digits) in 2004, 2006, or 2008.

The good news for the conservative movement is that 2010 represents an historic - generational, really -- opportunity to alter this picture that not only shows itself in a short term election result but in long term ways as well. This has been brought on by several factors, the strongest of which is the utter collapse of the Democratic Party in Kansas as well as nationally. Obama, who actually won the 3rd District in 2008, has seen his national approval ratings sink to the mid 40's. The Democratic Party is led by a bunch of socialist progressives who are increasingly unapologetic and unrelenting in their extreme beliefs, exposing their real agenda to the public at large, who is soundly rejecting them. This has resulted in several "safe" people retiring, which includes Dennis Moore, who won by 16 points just one year ago.

In Kansas, the Democratic slide could be seen before Obama came along, however. Sebelius may have brought some money into the party, but Democratic gains in Kansas were largely built upon Republicans switching parties instead of their own base of new candidates. Mark Parkinson, Paul Morrison, Cindy Neighbor, Lisa Benlon -- all former GOP Rinos. When Parkinson had a chance to elevate a rising star to Lt. Governor, he whiffed. Raj Goyle has raised a lot of money but will get crushed in Wichita. Laura Kelly is an okay candidate, but has been unremarkable as a Senator. On social issues, State Treasurer Dennis McKinney votes like a Republican. Steve Six is the most powerful person they have left, but in a GOP year of 2010, will easily get defeated by Derek Schmidt. The legislative seats they have in JoCo are held by a band of characters -- Benlon, Neighbor, Furtado, Slattery, Talia, and Rardin -- that represent one of the weakest benches one could possibly come up with -- and at least half, if not all -- of those six will get defeated in 2010.

Point is, the Democrats are at a point in Kansas where they were around 1994 -- nothing. With hardcore moderates not exactly in great shape either (Thornburgh is leaving, Jenkins is voting conservative in Congress, and Praeger has no future), that means the playing field is left for conservatives to seize. The question is -- will they?

For the first time in Kansas history, Kansas will have a Governor widely regarded as a conservative in Sam Brownback. While he certainly has made some segments of the conservative movement upset from time to time, he unquestionably is the most powerful figure conservatives have had in state history, and that is saying something. Not only does it present historic legislative opportunities on the areas of life, the budget, and other areas as well, it also presents historic political opportunities as well. By the time he is done being Governor, if he actually governs and campaigns like a conservative, Kansas should be a rock solid deep red state -- and by deep red, we don't just mean a bunch of people elected with R by their name -- by deep red, we mean real conservatives.

The problem, is, however, that it is not currently clear that is the direction Brownback specifically and the conservative movement in general will go. There is a reason, after all, that Sam Brownback is not trusted by some elements of the conservative movement. The fact that there are some conservative elements still pushing the candidacies of Nick Jordan and Jerry Moran show that there are some who want to operate like it is 2000 rather than 2010. 2000 was a time when the Morans and Jordans of the world would have been outstanding candidates. They are, after all, Bush-era-style Republicans who vote socially conservative but on the large scheme of issues are in truth, moderates -- both in terms of style and approach, the people they choose to politically align themselves with, and how they view the country in general. And while most expect Jordan, Moran, and Brownback, if they are elected, to largely "vote" or "govern" as conservatives, as they will all most assuredly campaign as, there is concern that when the current intensity brought on by the health care debate and Obama subsides, that they will return to their previous reputations as "go along/get along" type of conservatives that they were the most of their careers.

On the flip side, you also have the emerging tea party and 9/12 movements that, largely due to their infancy, have yet to completely take shape yet in terms of a real political movement. Many of their leaders and members, after all, are new to the political system (a good thing in large part) or were previously part of more limited movements, like the Ron Paul presidential candidacy. While their passion and numbers are certainly impressive, it is currently unclear whether that will show itself at the actual ballot box -- and beyond that, in terms of any kind of governing coalition that can actually accomplish tasks in a way that appeals to the large general public which is not part of their particular part of the conservative movement. Time will tell on this front.

On a related note, it is also currently unclear how the traditional conservative movement in Kansas and nationally will react to the emergence of the tea party movement, which although largely social conservative in its membership, is FOCUSED on fiscal issues. Many of the tea party members are "hands off" libertarians, which includes those who would rather steer clear of social conservative issues as a focus. For those active on the social conservative front in Kansas -- it is currently apparent that churches -- both Protestant and Catholic, which is where the social conservative movement is largely based -- are currently relatively disengaged when it comes to politics in Kansas. Over time, it will be interesting to see whether social issues such as marriage and life are relegated to the back burner or whether it is more of a temporary phenomenon due to the focus on the exploding budgets and health care.

The traditional social conservative and tea party movement conservatives should be allied - and certainly will be when it comes to unseating Democrats and RINO Republicans. However, what remains to be seen is how that plays out once their candidates are victorious and they have legislative majorities and/or statewide offices. Anytime one party has control, it naturally splinters into competing groups, and we are seeing the emergence of that right now. You have the "go along/get along" conservatives, who have many positions of power, who want to promote those such as Jerry Moran and Nick Jordan. You have traditional conservatives, who fuel campaigns such as that of Tim Huelskamp. And you have tea party conservatives, who due to their newness on the scene, don't have a lineup of candidates yet (though some are beginning to emerge for the state legislature), but are nonetheless a force in Kansas now.

To us, it will be intriguing to watch the battle emerge and see how it plays out in political races. Patricia Lightner in the 3rd District and Mike Pompeo in the 4th District are campaigning hard to appeal to both the social conservative and tea party movement conservative.. In the 3rd District, Yoder has the old RINO vote while in the 4th, Jean Schodorf does. In the 4th District, you have social conservative Dick Kelsey who has earned the endorsement of several socially conservative groups, while Pompeo has conservative legislators like Wagle, Landwehr, and Kelley. In the 1st District, Huelskamp seems to have both the tea party and traditional conservative vote locked up, but has a field of 5 opponents to deal with.

As we enter 2010, the question for the next decade will be -- what shape will the conservative movement take in Kansas? Will it go back to the Bush era with Jordan and Moran? Will it go for movement conservatives with experience like Huelskamp, Lightner, Tiahrt, and Pompeo? Or will it fail completely and promote those like Yoder, Schodorf, and Barnett? (to be fair to Yoder, he's moved right a bit, but his base is still the moderates, without question) This won't just play itself out in the big races, but in the legislative races as well. From which part of the movement do candidates emerge? Will they work together or fight? Will they support Brownback or criticize him?

We offer no prediction here at Kaw & Border, only to say that the next ten years will define conservatism in Kansas for a political generation. After all, all 6 federal seats in Kansas were held by their most recent representatives for at least 10 years. So whoever is chosen for these positions -- and the many legislative seats below them -- will define Republicanism and conservatism in Kansas for years to come -- and indeed, what exactly being a "deep red state" means in the eyes of the voter.