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SPOTLIGHT
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Challenges of creating a three-party system

Published on -9/29/2013, 11:55 AM

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My Insight Kansas colleague Michael Smith has called Kansas a "three party" state for more than a decade. While two of the parties might have shared the same name until recently, Kansas actually might become a three-party state in the near future.

After the 2012 Republican primary elections, most observers (myself included) were ready to carve a headstone marking the death of the Kansas moderate Republican. A resurgent state GOP apparatus rebuilt under conservative leadership methodically consolidated an organizational base, picked off almost all of the moderates still standing in the Senate, and cemented authority in both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governor's mansion.

What would become of the voters who preferred moderate Republicans, though? Had they shifted to the right, meaning moderates had disappeared? Would moderates shift to the Democrats, making a combination of two minorities to challenge at the newly dominant majority's heels? At first, Democrats had the upper hand, attracting high-profile moderate Republicans like former Wichita state Sen. Jean Schodorf. Moderates maintained most of their allegiance to the Republican Party, though, and the exodus to the Party of Jackson never materialized.

Banking on a silent majority of moderates yearning for a home, a group of Kansans are building a new party apparatus. Aaron Estabrook, Rodney Wren, Nick Hoehisel and Dave Warren have co-founded a Moderate Party of Kansas. Currently operating as a PAC, they are seeking ballot status for 2014. Boldly stating their intent, the Moderates claim our current situation of one-party, one-faction rule "demands cooperation and compromise," and they strive to "unite in the heart of the nation to bring balance, reason and pragmatism to Kansas."

Creating a party is no easy task, though. Political scientist Maurice Duverger pointed out electoral arrangements like ours inevitably become two-party systems. Breaking through two-party dominance is incredibly difficult -- just ask Ross Perot or Ralph Nader. The Moderates have to acquire thousands of petition signatures to become officially recognized, then they have to marshal the resources to recruit and support candidates.

Aiming high, Estabrook announced plans last month to challenge Sen. Pat Roberts in the 2014 primary. While the tactic earned free press, taking on one of the most respected and popular politicians in Kansas (according to SurveyUSA polls) is the very definition of quixotic. A party can raise and spend a lot of money only to get 27 percent of the vote, stalling out momentum.

Unspoken in the Moderate Party's ambitious plans are the two political figures that inspire them: Sam Brownback and Kris Kobach. Brownback is the state's highest profile political figure, but a Moderate Party candidate likely would simply split the anti-Brownback vote with presumptive Democratic nominee Paul Davis. Going after Brownback would be almost as much a fool's errand as Roberts, because the governor's advantages of strategy, money, and personnel are significant. Kobach presents an easier, yet still difficult, target. Even more than the big fish, the Moderates could build themselves from the ground up using selected state representative campaigns to reverse the 2010 and 2012 conservative movement that now dominates the legislature. Considering the organizational strength of the state GOP, however, any attempt by the Moderates is a David versus Goliath story.

There are clearly many "third-party" moderates still around, looking for a political home. Will the Moderate Party follow in the tradition of the Prohibition Party, who did win seats in the Legislature during its heyday? Are there enough moderates to help build a competitive campaign organization and recruit attractive candidates to build the party? Will the political pendulum swing left at the right time for the Moderate Party, or will they suffer the same fate as the Reform Party?

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

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