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Western Kansas faces a dearth of Democrats

By MARY CLARKIN

Special to The Hays Daily News

HUTCHINSON -- Democratic state lawmakers in western Kansas are an ever-vanishing breed.

State Rep. Jan Pauls, D-Hutchinson, is the only Democrat from the region headed to Topeka in 2013.

Tuesday's election knocked out three incumbent Democrats in the region: Sen. Allen Schmidt, Hays, and state Reps. Eber Phelps, Hays, and Vincent Wetta, Wellington.

Overall, Democrats' numbers in the Kansas Senate and House will be comparable next session to pre-election numbers: Democrats should hold eight seats in the 40-seat Senate, which is the same number held prior to Tuesday.

They could fill 32 to 34 seats in the 125-seat House, depending on recounts or canvassing in close races. The House has 33 Democrats.

The erosion in the West has been discussed among Democrats, said former state legislator and state treasurer Dennis McKinney, Greensburg.

McKinney lost his bid Tuesday for an open seat in the House. Jetmore Republican John Ewy captured the 117th District.

Most of the losses are in the rural areas, McKinney observed that trend beginning well before Tuesday.

In 1998, the region had two Democratic state senators. Ten members in the House of Representatives representing western districts were Democrats.

That geographic territory 15 years later will send one Democrat to the House.

It used to be, McKinney said, winning the endorsement of the Kansas Livestock Association or the Kansas Farm Bureau meant a lot to a candidate.

Now, the focus tends toward national issues, not local issues, McKinney noted.

Going door-to-door, he said, a candidate more likely will be asked: "Where are you on Obamacare?"

Attack literature against some Democratic candidates tied them to Obama's Affordable Care Act.

"Classic red herring," McKinney said.

When negative mailings went out in Phelps' district, Phelps said, some residents expressed disgust with the mailings when Phelps and supporters knocked on doors.

But Phelps was concerned about those who weren't reached by door-to-door canvassing. Maybe the mailings had the desired effect, he suspects.

Wetta said the mailings had a definite effect.

"We ran a great campaign," he said, "until all the negative stuff came out."

House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said negative campaigning prevailed.

"The Kansas Chamber and Americans for Prosperity spent heavily in most of these races," Davis also wrote in an email response.

"I blame the Democratic Party, too," said Wetta, who lost to Rep. Kyle Hoffman, R-Coldwater. Redistricting in June put Wetta and Hoffman in the same House territory.

Wetta said he voted for states' rights against the national health care act. He also said he thinks the national and state Democratic Party organizations should "take a real long look" at their direction and priorities.

When the temporary absence of "God" from the national Democratic Party's platform generated headlines in the summer, it would have been helpful if Kansas Democratic Party leaders had spoken out against the removal, McKinney said.

To some extent, he said, Democratic leaders have been out of touch with western Kansas.

Republicans proved "very adept" at seizing that opportunity, McKinney said.

Democrats should be more aggressive on moral issues, in McKinney's view.

Kansans for Life's political action committee found McKinney and Ewy both pro-life.

"I say I'm pro-life," McKinney said, "before and after the baby is born." That includes concern for children in foster care or the child entering kindergarten, he said.

Phelps also had the support of Kansans for Life, and said he was surprised when a card stuck in his vehicle windshield questioned his pro-life stand.

Voters will vote for the party, not for the individual, said Chapman Rackaway, associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

"These personal friendships can be trumped. This isn't student council," Rackaway said.

During this campaign season, the number of registered Republicans set a record for the advantage over Democrats.

The growing number of Republicans was a hurdle, the Democrats said.

Rackaway pointed out that Republicans did a "good job," too, recruiting candidates.

Because of redistricting, Schmidt had to run in the 40th Senate District, against Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell.

Besides taking on an incumbent and largely new territory, Schmidt faced a lopsided split: The district was 60 percent Republican, 20 percent Democrat.

"I knew the odds," Schmidt said.

He traveled 15,000 miles since June, going to about 20 parades, he said. He needed to carry his home county of Ellis big to offset losses elsewhere. That did not happen.

Even Ellis County, once considered the "last fortress" for Democrats, has shifted, as pro-life Catholics have become Republicans, Rackaway noted.

McKinney said he had heard that statewide, Republican candidates were advised to avoid candidate forums.

"If you can win just based on your label, why take a chance just messing that up," McKinney said.

Kansas Republican Party executive director Clayton Barker said he was not aware of the party sending out any directive like that.

Sometimes individual candidates will make their own decision not to participate if, for example, they are ahead or they think the questions at a forum could be slanted, Barker said.

"We did very well in western Kansas," Barker said one day after the election.

Democrats aren't forecasting a rapid rebound.

Rackaway identified someone who could help the rebuilding effort: Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

If the tax plan does not work, Rackaway said, Brownback will have no one to share the blame.

Brownback has a dilemma, said Phelps, who was defeated by Hays Republican Sue Boldra.

The state revenue estimate issued late on the afternoon of Election Day said the state could face a $327 million shortfall in the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2013.

Newly elected or re-elected legislators will be reluctant to scrap the scheduled rollback in state sales tax, Phelps pointed out, particularly since legislators who voted for the sales tax hike were criticized.

"That leaves massive cuts," Phelps said.

But where, he asked: Education? Transportation?

The Democrats have a "built-in issue" if the tax plan fails, Rackaway said.