Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Fractured Party? Hardly.

This week when I received my Johnson County Sun in the mail, I initially thought that perhaps I had been sent a paper from 2001, not 2011.  The reason was this headline:

Some fear GOP could fracture

Naturally, as a blog writer which focuses on area politics, this headline grabbed my attention -- what inside story was I missing, perhaps? 

The article by Loren Stanton, which focused on what was a 1990's/early 2000's era mantra that the Republican Party, particularly within Johnson County, was hopelessly split along conservative/moderate lines , though written fairly well, deserves an "F" for its analytical and factual value. 

The chief clue that Stanton had a particular purpose in mind -- to "create news" that there was discord within the Republican Party and make conservatives look terrible -- was the picture that accompanied the article:  that of "Republican" Senator John Vratil, who was quoted extensively within the piece.  Stanton -- and the editors at the Sun who approved the piece -- are clearly trying to create controversy around the fact that Vratil and what's left of his remaining liberal friends who are still technically Republicans -- are being targeted by conservatives in hopes of turning the liberal-leaning (despite its wide Republican majority) Senate more conservative in 2012. 

By making these conservatives look "radical" (as Vratil calls them), Stanton and company are attempting to build up a strawman that a bunch of right-wing wackos are going after "reasonable" moderate Senators, and in doing so, they might "destroy" the party.

However, there are several holes in this made-up theory that the party is fractured -- specifically election results as well as the voting record of the so-called "moderate" members in question.  Stanton would have done himself well to interview elected officials other than John Vratil and Tim Owens -- there are 20 conservatives in the Johnson County delegation, yet Stanton didn't quote one -- only two party officials (Ronnie Metsker and Clay Barker) and Steve Shute, head of the Union of Patriots.

Stanton's article would have been more relevant if it was written ten years ago, back when then the Republican Party still had large segments of so-called moderates.  If one remembers, it was in 2002 that the liberal members of the party made an aggressive push against conservatives over education, sending a few home in primaries.  Moderates still made an aggressive push in precinct committee races, and the control of the party was always in question.  It was also at the tail end of the Graves Administration, a moderate Governor, and at a time when no conservatives held statewide office.   A look at the Johnson County legislative delegation in 2003, indeed, revealed a moderate majority, as liberal Republicans masquerading as moderates had taken over previously held conservative seats in Districts 16 and 18, and won a newly created seat in District 38, and held many other seats throughout the county except in Olathe and southern Overland Park.   Mark Parkinson, of all people, was State Chair for a period of time.  Phill Kline did win in 2002, but only by a narrow margin.

However, a lot has changed since the early 2000's, which Stanton falls far short of explaining to readers:

- Many of the so-called moderate Republicans holding office ten years ago have switched to the Democratic Party -- Lisa Benlon, Paul Morrison, Delores Furtado, Cindy Neighbor, Ron Wimmer, not to mention former GOP Chair Mark Parkinson -- trying to take advantage of the brief-but-fake (they went up to 6 House seats in JoCo in 2008, only to fall back to 1 in 2010) Democratic wave in the mid-2000's due to the popularity of Kathleen Sebelius and lack of a credible GOP heavyweight to challenge her.  The fact that these "former moderates" felt comfortable in the left-wing Democratic Party should be worth mentioning -- as should the fact that not one of them remains in office.  Stanton might have a point if these figures were replaced by "moderate Republicans" -- but every office formerly held by a Republican-turned-Democrat is now held by someone considered at least reasonably conservative, if not very conservative.

- Furthering that point, conservatives, in the last ten years, have expanded beyond their former strongholds of Olathe and southern Overland Park.  In 2003,  conservatives only held House Districts 14, 15, 23, 26, 27, 28, 29, 48, and 49; while holding Senate Districts 9, 10, 23 and 37, as they do now.  In 2011, conservatives hold 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, 26, 27, 38, 39, 43, 48, and 49,.  They fell 30 votes short of reclaiming District 29 and didn't field candidates in the other seats.  In the seven Senate seats, which elects all of its members every four years, the split is 4-3, but hasn't had an election since conservatives have been on a surge -- hence, the effort to take on the remaining moderates in 2012.  Statewide in Kansas, conservatives now control every statewide office except Insurance Commissioner -- and so-called "lightning rod" and the bogeyman of the left, Kris Kobach, won with nearly 60% of the vote, and did carry 60% in supposedly moderate Johnson County.   Kevin Yoder campaigned as a conservative and crushed Stephene Moore by a ridiculous margin.

- "Moderates" have largely stopped fielding challengers against conservatives who are incumbents, or even in open seats -- they took a pass on every House seat in 2010, for instance, except the seats they held.  They largely have given up fielding a large field of candidates for precinct committee races.  Even in open seats, when they do field someone, they get crushed.  In 2008, a Democratic year overall, Mary Pilcher-Cook crushed Sue Gamble, a well known moderate, in the primary.  Some thought she might be at risk in the general, with the so-called coalition of moderates and Democrats coming together to defeat her.  Instead, she won again -- securing 55% of the vote, doing 1% better than the supposedly more-acceptable Terrie Huntington and Tim Owens.  Senator Julia Lynn (a two year incumbent but she had not yet been on the ballot), who campaigned aggressively as a conservative, won 55% against a former Superintendent and "icon" Ron Wimmer, who had switched parties after losing to Lynn in 2006 in a special convention to replace Kay O'Connor. 

- Moderates have even started losing ground in areas they held for a long time.  District 17 is a perfect example, held by left-wing Republicans Lisa Benlon, Stephanie Sharp, and Jill Quigley.  It's partially in older Lenexa, where moderates have historically done well.  Kelly Meigs, a political newcomer, challenged Quigley and won handily, for a primary challenge.    Districts 19 and 20 are held by members considered to be conservative.  Democrats considered "moderate" by the media are losing -- Cindy Neighbor lost 59-41.  Gene Rardin lost 55-45.  Milack Talia lost 54-46.   Conservative-with-no-money Jason Osterhaus defeated moderate icon Larry Winn in a general election in a seat previously held by Ed Eilert and Delores Furtado.  The list goes on and on.  If "conservatives" were "destroying" the party as Vratil claims, they would be losing seats -- in fact, as the party goes more to the right, it is gaining seats.  That fact is ignored in the article.

- As Johnson County grows, it is becoming more conservative.  The growth areas are Olathe, western Johnson County, and southern Overland Park -- completely dominated by not just conservative legislators, but very conservative legislators -- all whom won general elections in 2010 by margins approaching or even surpassing 70% of the vote.   There will likely be 4 new House seats and 1 1/2 new Senate seats in 2012 -- all will be from the newer, very conservative areas. 

- Finally, and this is the most important point Stanton ignores, the individuals he calls "moderates" are anything but -- and the public is catching on.  Vratil and company have a decidedly liberal voting record by any reasonable standard, and the public, when it has a chance, is largely rejecting that record.  Make no mistake, during the Sebelius regime, there was no greater friend of the Governor than John Vratil and his friends.  Now, under the relatively "mainstream" governorship of Republican Sam Brownback, Vratil and Owens have done their best to criticize or outright block his initiatives.  They are, by any reasonable standard, as left wing as Democrats, but they are now back to the reality that one must be a Republican in JoCo to hold a seat, despite notions a few years ago that being a Democrat had long term viability in Kansas.

Indeed, in the article, Stanton talks about the math, which Vratil recognizes -- the moderates, when combined with the 8 Democrats, have enough votes to control the chamber on a host of issues, stopping quality conservative legislation from being passed.  What Stanton omits, however, is what that legislation was, in an attempt to have the public believe it was extreme.  The legislation was largely around income tax relief for businesses and individuals, as well as judicial selection reform, where Kansas sits anywhere but the mainstream, being the only state in the country to have the system it has.   The 'conservative' legislation that did pass -- such as several pro-life bills, etc -- was largely opposed by Vratil, Huntington, and Owens -- the three figures mentioned in the article.

The point of this is to say that the party is anything but fractured -- unless you are one of those remaining liberal relics of the past who is being targeted.  In fact, any reporter who did actual research and had his "ear to the ground" would pick upon the fact that the vast majority of Republicans, even those not super conservative, are completely tired of trying to make room in the "tent" for those like John Vratil and Tim Owens, because if the tent were that big, it would have no meaning.   In fact, if there is one thing that unifies most in the party, it is a desire to see the party actually be more than a group of people running for office -- it has to be defined by a set of common beliefs -- and while differences will be respected and occur, the larger principles are largely headed the same direction.   Vratil, Owens, Huntington, and the remaining six moderates/Dems in the House from JoCo are wanting to go a completely opposite direction, which is why they are being "targeted".

Indeed, what is happening in Johnson County is a shift -- no longer is the split between individuals who call themselves moderates but are indeed liberal and conservatives, a split which existed because the gap was simply too large to bridge.  How can one bridge a gap between those who want to increase taxes and those who want to cut them?  How can one bridge a gap between those who want abortion on demand and those who are very pro-life?   We could go on and on -- the point is, Kansans, or at least Kansas Republicans, slowly, election by election, are making clear where they stand -- and it's not with left wing Republicans.

Instead, what is replacing the past political reality is one where there are still differences, but the differences, as noted before, are largely on details but not on the overall principles.  For example, one could certainly argue that Lance Kinzer is more conservative than say, Rob Bruchman, but there is no question BOTH are conservative and both largely agree on most issues.  One is just more aggressive in conservative advocacy than the other.

Another slight "difference" emerging is between more "libertarian" conservatives and those who are less so -- again, however, they are both largely in agreement on overall principles.  The result on both of these fronts is maybe a simple disagreement on Issue A or Issue B, but none of the past fractures that Stanton is trying to create. 

Evidence of this -- Shute's Union of Patriots and other groups aren't targeting Senators or Reps who are not as conservative as they are -- they're targeting liberals hiding in Republican clothing.  If the party was truly fractured, they would be fielding candidates against incumbents who weren't towing the exact line.  Yes, there are some elements of the conservative movement who don't trust Brownback completely, but such talk is limited and only among a few -- and even those individuals, if you truly asked them, would admit the Governor is doing a great job and is a breath of fresh air over the entire history of Kansas Governors.

Of course, the reason the Johnson County Sun and John Vratil ignore these facts is very basic -- they don't like them!   Which is clear if you read between the lines of the last three paragraphs of this article:

Senate Minority Anthony Hensley of Topeka said he agrees with Vratil (K&B: Shocker!) that a more conservative push would lead to policies most Kansans would oppose. (K&B: If that is the case, Kansans wouldn't elect them, would they?)  Of course, Democratic legislators must rely on forming a coalition (K&B: As they have for decades) with Republican moderates (K&B: liberals) to achieve their goals.

"We have a mainly moderate majority in the Senate.  Our role is not to push an agenda that is right or left, but to prevent things (from either extreme) from becoming law," Hensley said. (K&B: Since when is Hensley a road block to extreme liberal legislation?)

The U.S. Congress, Hensley believes, could take a lesson from Kansas Senators in how to form an effective bipartisan coalition.  If the next election shifts the Senate to a conservative majority, however, Hensley fears that example of cooperation will be lost.

Hensley's fear-- that a conservative majority may be coming -- flies in the face of his contention the public doesn't want it.   It can't come if the public doesn't want it, particularly if the media is continually pushing against it, as it is in this article.

One of the first rules in politics is if you don't like the truth of what's going on, try to change the narrative to fit your agenda, and hope the public buys it.  One way to do so by is inventing fear-mongering headlines (Some fear GOP could fracture) by creating a storyline where there is none (the party is being destroyed!!), done by erecting the biggest strawman you can find (these conservatives are radicals and want to take out reasonable "thinking" moderates), and then beat that strawman up like there is no tomorrow. (we must save the state by stopping them!)

Which stands to reason, because the problem for liberals like Hensley and Vratil is absent this false narrative, and when their liberal record is exposed and the electorate weighs in, there will be no tomorrow.