Thursday, December 2, 2010

Our 2011 Tip for the GOP in Kansas: Be Bold!

We are now a month past the general election, and the next two to four years in Kansas politics are beginning to take shape. As Governor Brownback and his transition team line up their appointments for the new administration, and as several legislative seats change hands in the process (either by virture of the Nov 2 election or subsequent resignations or appointments), the transition we are witnessing is not only a change from one Governor to another, but indeed what could be a seismic shift in the entire landscape of Kansas politics that could very well last a generation.

In order to completely understand the signficance of what is currently going on in Kansas, we must first look at history. In truth, the current era of Kansas politics began in the early 1990's, when conservatives went from a small issues-based movement into a political one, capturing a strong foothold in the Kansas House with victories by folks such as Kay O'Connor, Phill Kline, and others. The rise of these figures served as a foundation for conservative victories in the future, including Vince Snowbarger's win against Ed Eilert in the 1996 3rd District Congressional primary, to Phill Kline's winning the Attorney General seat in 2002.

What the rise of conservativsm in Kansas meant was that Kansas was no longer a two party system, but a three party system -- Democrats, liberal Republicans (called moderates by some), and conservative Republicans.

Of course, for the first decade or so of the conservatives' existence as a credible political movement in Kansas, they had growing pains, as is typical for any new movement. While conservatives did very well in capturing federal seats -- Brownback winning the House in 1994 and the Senate in 1996 over Sheila Frahm and Jill Docking; Jim Ryun succeeding Brownback in 1996; Tiahrt winning the House in 1994; and Snowbarger winning the House in 1996 -- conservatives did not do well in state offices.

Yes, Tim Shallenburger captured the State Treasurer's office in 1998 and Phill Kline won, very narrowly, the Attorney General's office in 2002 -- but outside of that, conservatives held no -- and were really not competitive in -- any statewide offices in Kansas from 1992 until 2010. Shallenburger, in fact, was defeated for Governor in 2002 and Kline, of course, was defeated for re-election in 2006. Conservative efforts at the governorship failed miserably -- Shallenburger's defeat in 2002 to Sebelius was the closest, in 1998, Conservative David Miller was trounced by Graves in the primary and in 2006, Jim Barnett (who ran as a conservative, though he unquestionably is truly a moderate) was crushed by Sebelius.

On the legislative side, conservatives were able to get a strong foothold in the House, certainly controlling the caucus and obtaining what some might consider a pro-life majority at one time. However, that majority proved not to be as conservative on the fiscal side, with pro-life moderates, RINO's, and Democrats joining together to allow the Sebelius spending hikes to put Kansas on a path to at best, fiscal irresponsiblity, and at worst, economic and budgetary collapse. On the Senate side, conservatives have never had more than say, 17-18 reliable votes, and never controlled leadership -- even in 2008, with 31 Republicans, Steve Morris won 18-13 in his campaign for Senate President.

Point of this history lesson is to point out that while conservatives certainly rose up and had a great impact on the Republican Party and Kansas politics in general, they truly have never been anywhere near control of either chamber nor any statewide office, save two for a period of four years each.

Much of this is due to the fact, for eight years a piece, liberal Republicans and Democrats each used their one "big bat" to run for and hold the Governorship. From 1995-2002, moderate Republican Bill Graves, a very popular Governor among most Kansans, controlled things. He was, in a sense, the moderates' superstar. It was during that period of time that groups like the GOP Club, a Johnson County-based group of moderate Republicans ran by Steve Cloud and company, were the most organized, having control of the party for periods of time, including the period in which Mark Parkinson was State GOP Chair. They fielded primary challengers, in fact, a sure sign of a strength of a political movement. Graves' name was even used on postcards recommending people for Republican Precinct Committeeman.

However, when Graves left, the moderates lost their main source of control over the Republican Party. David Adkins was crushed by Phill Kline in the 2002 Republican Primary for Attorney General. Moderates were largely unsuccessful in taking out conservatives in legislative primaries. Seats they won in 2002 (like District 18) they gave back two years later, in many cases. In the 3rd District, even hero Adam Taff (pre-prison) lost to Kris Kobach in the primary in 2004. They simply were not furnishing future stars -- and ones they thought they had, such as Kevin Yoder and Dean Newton, ended up being fairly conservative. Other talented figures simply became too liberal for Republicans to swallow in general elections. The moderates, though it wasn't clear to all at the time, were clearly weakening -- slowly.

Because of the moderates' weakness, that gave an opening to Democrats. Much like the moderates needed Graves, however, they needed their own big bat. Luckily for them, there were two Democrats holding statewide office -- Sally Thompson in the State Treasurer's office, who lost to Pat Roberts for the US Senate -- and also Kathleen Sebelius as Insurance Commissioner, who soon became to the the Democrats what Bill Graves was to the mods.

Sebelius gave the Democrats life. Because the moderates didn't have anyone credible to follow Graves and because Shallenburger didn't rise to the "big bat" status necessary to beat Queen Kathleen, she won election in 2002. In the period of time she was in office, moderate Republicans began to show their RINO stripes and switched parties -- Mark Parkinson, Cindy Neighbor and Paul Morrison in 2006 and Rick Guinn, Lisa Benlon and Ron Wimmer in 2008, for instance.

While this certainly gave the Democrats a shot in the arm -- they won a major statewide office (other than Governor) and two Congressional seats in 2006 and they started to recruit more candidates for the legislature, including winning six seats in Johnson County in 2008 -- it was fool's gold for two key reasons:

- Most of their victories were based on party switchers, former Republicans with high name identification. Except for a few folks swept into office by Obamamania such as Milack Talia and Mike Slattery, most Democrats who weren't previously Republicans failed. Some, like Wimmer and Guinn, never succeeded. Others, like Neighbor and Benlon -- have since been booted out of office.

- Kansas is, at its core, a conservative state.

No more evidence is needed in the Democrats false insurgency is the the fact that all of the statewide offices, save liberal RINO Sandy Praeger (one of the last remains of the moderate GOP faction), are occupied by Democrats who were never elected to the position they hold. Parkinson, former Lt Governor, is now Governor. He appointed Troy Findley to Lt Gov, Chris Biggs to Secretary of State, and Steve Six to Attorney General. All have lost.

Indeed, Sebelius saw the writing on the wall when she took off for Washington in 2009 -- she knew that, at its core, Kansas is a conservative state and she would have likely lost to the Moran-Tiahrt winner in 2010. What she left behind was a Democratic Party in retreat -- now down to 9 (and probably less in 2012) seats in the Kansas Senate and just 33 in the Kansas House, including losing 5 of the 6 seats it had gained in Johnson County. Not only that, they lost the 3rd Congressional Seat in embarassing fashion.

The Democrats, by any measurement, are dead in Kansas, at least for now.

The moderate Republicans, by any measurement, are on severe life support, clinging onto just the Kansas Senate with a bunch of ineffective folks like John Vratil and Pete Brungardt, who have absolutely no future in politics. Brungardt, for instance, nearly lost his primary in 2008.

That brings us to 2010. Much like Graves was the mods' big bat from 1995-2002 and Sebelius was the Dems' big bat from 2003 to 2009, Sam Brownback is the "big bat" conservatives have been craving the past 20 years.

While certainly conservative success in 2010 -- capturing at least 71 seats in the House and having Kris Kobach and Ron Estes victorious in statewide races, along with the mildly conservative Derek Schmidt -- had a lot to do with the national mood and the fact the Democrats and moderates are so weak -- there is no question that Sam Brownback's presence at the top of the Kansas ticket -- and with it, the kind of resources that Graves and Sebelius enjoyed -- helped propel conservatives to a true state of governance for the first time in history.

Now with conservatives taking control in January, the question is no longer if they can get control, but what they will do once we have it -- in truth, that is the test for any new "party" when they go from complainer to leader.

Will Republicans, starting with Sam Brownback, be bold?

Will they cut taxes, including repealing the sales tax hike from last year?

Will they institute judicial reform, starting with the State Appeals Court, which only requires a simple majority to change?

Will they pursue real school choice?

Will they have the courage to cut education spending, when necessary, standing up to the education lobby?

Will they have the courage to repeal dumb laws passed in the past few years, including the ridicuously confusing teenage driving law?

Will they pursue real budget reform, which includes going to a system of zero-based budgeting, rather than relying on the previous year's spending levels as a starting point?

These are just a few of the "litmus tests" many conservatives will be using to judge the success or failure of conservative power in the next several years.

Yes, the moderates, when combined with the Democrats, still have operable control over the State Senate. However, with 31 Republicans, one would think Governor Brownback could use some political capital to influence enough squishy Republicans to get to 21 votes on a critical issue? And, more importantly, even if you can't get to a number (say the 27 needed to change the Supreme Court judicial selection method), one would hope we would actively primary the 10-15 RINO Senators who are standing in the way of conservative legislation being passed.

Our advice to Governor Brownback and conservatives in power?

BE BOLD. You have nothing to be afraid of.

Indeed, as we described earlier, the moderates and Democrats are both at their weakest in history. Their "movements' are hopelessly disorganized and morale is low. The candidates they do find are either terrible or out of step with the values of Kansans. The school lobby is weaker than ever, with Kansans sick of 18 years of massive increases in education spending, only to see the same lobby ask for yet another increase the next year, demanding tax increases to fund them.

More importantly, Kansans are embracing conservative values. It is not like Sam Brownback and Kris Kobach are, to use a popular RINO phrase from the mid 1990's, "stealth" -- everyone knew what they were voting for -- yet both won with huge margins, both bigger than the margin Derek Schmidt, someone who was part of the moderate Steve Morris leadership team, earned.

Kansans are pro-life people who want their taxes low, spending cut, the schools kept accountable, and government small. Plus, with a still-emerging tea party movement ready to serve as an enforcement mechanism for 2010 campaign promises, now more than ever, conservative elected officials will be hearing from conservative voters.

With the people at their back and the political risks small, Brownback and legislative leaders need to realize what they have in front of them is a huge opportunity -- not to simply win future elections for political gain, but to leave a lasting legacy that will have a positive impact on the lives of Kansans for generation to come. And on an even broader perspective for the nation as a whole, they have an opportunity to make Kansas a model for conservative governance for other states to follow.

Imagine a Kansas as a truly pro-life state, as far as the current Supreme Court will allow us to go!

Imagine a Kansas where taxes are low compared to our neighbors, where businesses and families want to move here instead of move away.

Imagine a Kansas where immigration laws are enforced, where voters actually have to prove who they are when they vote, and where voter rolls are cleaned up.

Imagine a Kansas where the budget is balanced and where spending is reduced and government is not just held steady, but actually shrunk.

Imagine a Kansas where the court system is like the federal one, and where Governor Brownback, rather than being forced to select from three liberals, can choose true constitutionalists to fill judgeships in Kansas, a decision which would mean no more Montoys -- ever.

Imagine a Kansas where school choice is embraced and where public schools are even more successful because they are held accountable and have real competition.

Imagine that.

This will only occur if Sam Brownback and Republican legislative leaders not only have a sense of history, but realize they have the opportunity make history -- to realize the opportunity in front of them to take bold, conservative, decisive action.

We will not comment on whether we think this will happen -- that's for another blog post on another day -- but we certainly hope it will. If it does, we will have their back as will the vast majority of Kansans. Sure, some will oppose them, but in the long run, most Kansans -- largely a conservative lot -- will reward conservative action.

Why? Because conservatism works every time it's tried. And it's time to try it here in the Sunflower State.