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SPOTLIGHT
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GOP departure creates political options

Published on -9/9/2012, 10:52 AM

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Political parties are like sports fans. Most tend to stay with one team from cradle to grave. You'd no sooner see a Royals fan in Cardinal red than Rockies purple.

People leave political parties with that same rarity. So it was noteworthy that Wichita's Jean Schodorf, one of the moderate Republicans unseated by Gov. Sam Brownback's allies, announced Aug. 30 she was leaving the GOP. Schodorf's departure from the GOP makes a strong statement about the current state of party politics in Kansas.

Animosity within the GOP built up for more than a decade until war broke out in 2012. Factionalism is common in majority parties like the Kansas GOP. However, those factions tend to fight in the Legislature but settle their differences before they spill over into contested primaries.

When the fights fail legislative containment and go to elections, they can spell doom for the majority party. The choice Schodorf makes likely will have a lasting impact on Kansas politics, if for no other reason than she might start a chain reaction that could shift the partisan balance in the state.

The obvious strategy would be for Schodorf to join the Democratic Party. While a distant second in voter registrations, Democrats are competitive in Kansas at the right time and in the right district. Schodorf's Democratic realignment would send a clear signal that unless one is in strong lockstep with Gov. Brownback, the Republican Party is no welcome place.

The Democrats, until recently, had a strong campaign apparatus that could be rebuilt with the right leadership. Democrats would not supplant the Republicans as the state's majority party, but could return to their competitiveness during the Sebelius era.

However, the last time moderate Republicans were enticed to switch to the Democrats, only a few made the move. Paul Morrison and Mark Parkinson did not inspire a flood of Republicans to leave the party, but they were not shown the door in the emphatic way Schodorf and her kind were.

Schodorf and the bevy of other ousted Republicans like Tim Owens, Roger Reitz and Dick Kelsey could simply run as independents. Unaffiliated voters in Kansas are smaller in number than nationwide, but the number is growing and popular dissatisfaction with the two main parties could inspire a Ross Perot-style anti-party revolt.

However, even Ross Perot eventually decided he needed a party, which leads to the third option.

Assuming conservatives and moderates make roughly equal numbers of the state GOP, rather than moving in with Democrats Schodorf might decide it's time to build a new house and form a new party entirely. Third parties like the Populists have a history in Kansas, sweeping the GOP out in the late 1800s.

Former Gov. Bill Graves and Senate President Steve Morris were able to quickly build a campaign apparatus outside the existing GOP structure during the primary and fund it well, though the Democratic-allied sources of that money make it unlikely they could access that money again from a new party.

Moderate Republicans do vote distinctly differently than their Democratic counterparts, so they might be an awkward fit there. But a third party, able to control its own agenda and platform, raise its own money and offer a consistent alternative vision might be a viable option.

The history of third parties does not suggest we should have much confidence, however. Whether it is Perot's Reform Party, or going back to the Know-Nothings and Anti-Masonic parties, third parties tend to have a quick rise and quicker fall. The Libertarians and Socialists notwithstanding, most startup political parties do not last more than an election or two.

But most startup parties lack the existing numbers and structure that Schodorf's group has. And most of those other parties were national, where voters are more divided between the main parties. Here in Kansas, there is a sizable chunk of the population that just might respond to a new political entity.

The divorce from Brownback's conservatives just might give Schodorf and her allies the opportunity to blaze a new trail and compete with a brand-new party.

Chapman Rackaway is an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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