By RANDY GONZALES
The Ellis County John F. Kennedy visited for a congressional dinner has undergone a political shift in the ensuing 53 years.
Kennedy, who just a few months later announced his candidacy for president, still was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts when he traveled to Hays in November 1959. Kennedy, a Catholic and a Democrat, fit in with Ellis County politics at the time.
Kennedy, who narrowly defeated Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential race, carried Ellis County with 65 percent of the vote. Contrast that to the 2008 election, when Republican John McCain garnered just 46 percent of the vote nationwide but won 66 percent of the vote in Ellis County.
The shift in Ellis County politics mirrors what has happened across the nation through the years, especially with Republican gains in the South, said Chapman Rackaway, an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.
"This has been a Democratic stronghold for a long time," Rackaway said of Ellis County. "Until only recently, you saw a majority or plurality of registered voters here in Ellis County who had registered Democrat, making us the one blue county in pretty much a lake of red."
One of the leaders of the Kansas Democratic party in the 1960s was Hays attorney Norbert Dreiling. Jerry Moran, then a GOP congressman representing the First District in Kansas, said in a speech on the House floor in 2004 that Dreiling "may be best known as the father of Democratic politics in the state of Kansas."
Moran detailed Dreiling's career in his speech. After graduating from law school in 1949, Dreiling returned home to Hays, where he volunteered as a precinct committeeman for 25 years. From 1966 to 1974, Dreiling served as state party chairman of the Democratic party and was campaign chairman for Gov. Robert Docking. Under Dreiling's leadership, for the first time in state history an incumbent Republican governor was defeated.
"Norbert really encapsulates today Ellis County politics," said Henry Schwaller IV, a Democrat on the Hays City Commission and also a local businessman. "Norbert knew voters wanted socially moderate and fiscally conservative."
Dreiling played a key role in Kennedy's visit to Hays on Nov. 20, 1959. There was a dinner at Jefferson West School, later renamed Kennedy Middle School.
"We had $10 per plate, and that was quite a bit of money back then," Dreiling told The Hays Daily News in a 2002 interview. "The gym was packed. I'd not have thought people would have come out of the woodwork for Kennedy."
In 1976, the earliest year figures were available, Ellis County was a Democratic stronghold. Registered voters were 78 percent Democratic, with 22 percent Republican. Current voter registration in Ellis County is 27 percent Democrat, 45 percent Republican and 28 percent either unaffiliated or with another party.
Rackaway pointed to two factors leading to voters aligning themselves with the Republican Party.
"I think you can't underestimate one really significant shift, which is that the Republican party took on the mantel of being the pro-life party," Rackaway said. "A lot of Catholics said that lines up much better with these core ideological beliefs I have than voting Democratic, but not feeling good about it because of the abortion stance.
"That led to people shifting their voter registration. I think that had quite a bit to do with it."
The other factor is the changing face of Ellis County.
"You also have a situation where there's in-migration here to Ellis County," Rackaway said. "We joke about the five main names. Around here you're a Dinkel or a Pfannenstiel or a Schumacher.
"What with HaysMed and Fort Hays State and some of the other employers we have around here, we're getting more folks coming in from outside. They're going to reflect voting behaviors often times of the rest of Kansas, which tends to be more Republican."
Anthony Glassman, chairman of the Ellis County Democratic party since September, said it's not the presidential race but the local candidates who are his main concern.
"I try not to concentrate too much on the presidential election. I'd rather concentrate more on our local (candidates) seeking election," Glassman said. "When that election night comes up, Kansas is going to be red. But when that election night comes up, we can see a lot of blue.
"I never felt so strongly about our local people. They are truly amazing."
John Pyle, chairman of the Ellis County Republican party, believes the strong showing by McCain in 2008 is a harbinger of things to come in this election cycle.
"I found 2008 to be very indicative," Pyle said. "I'm telling people we're going to carry that forward in 2012.
"In 2008, we had a lot of crossover votes. I think we're going to see a larger disparity in votes next month."
For local and area Democrats to be competitive in the current political climate, they have to figure out how to encourage people to vote for them, Rackaway said.
"I think you see a lot of Democratic candidates that are here in this area are conservative, compared to other Democrats," Rackaway said. "Out here, you've got to establish some social bonafides with voters. I think that's important for Democrats to do.
"That's the only change in message they need to make, because the economic message still resonates very strongly out here. This is a community that strongly believes in education. They've got a great wedge issue with Gov. Brownback, his tax plan and cuts proposed across the board, including to the state education budget. That's something that hits a lot of people very, very strongly here in Ellis County."