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SPOTLIGHT
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A Kansas Democratic resurgence?

Published on -10/21/2012, 12:47 PM

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Earlier in this space, I theorized about the future of moderate Republicans defeated in this summer's primary elections. Since then, new developments that could determine the faction's future in Kansas politics have occurred. The moderates' destination now appears to be the Kansas Democratic Party.

Party shifts are nothing new, in national or state politics. A coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans governed the U.S. Congress for most of the 20th century until Southern conservatives aligned with the GOP in the 1990s. In Kansas, moderate Republicans and Democrats governed the state for decades until the end of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' tenure. In the 2010 elections and 2012 primary, Kansas followed a national rightward trend. The rise of the tea party nationally and the arrival of conservative Sam Brownback in Cedar Crest coincided to produce a right turn in Kansas politics. But political partisanship is like a pendulum: it always swings back. Perhaps it already has started swinging back. After the primary, moderate Republicans and Democrats were in disarray, stunned by the conservative statewide sweep.

The moderates had two options: go Democratic or form a new party. Numerous high-profile moderates recently have decided to cast their lot with the Democrats.

Gwyn Mellinger presciently covered Salina's 24th Senate district primary between Pete Brungardt and Tom Arpke in this space as a metaphor for the contests statewide. Brungardt, a respected long-time moderate in the upper chamber, lost to Arpke in August. Rather than sit out the general election, Brungardt endorsed Democrat Janice Norlin. By backing the Democrat, Brungardt's endorsement actually could signal a shift of realignment within Kansas, where former moderate Republicans join the Democrats long-term.

In the wake of Brungardt's announcement, Roger Reitz and Tim Owens among other moderates, followed suit.

Last week, Traditional Republicans for Common Sense released a list of six Republicans and six Democrats the group recommends voters elect in November. Noted moderate survivors of the summer purge Jay Emler, Elaine Bowers and Carolyn McGinn are included with Democrats such as Lisa Johnston, Tom Holland and Laura Kelly. An alliance between moderate Republicans and Democrats seems to be building momentum, despite spokeswoman Rochelle Chronister's assertion her group is not done with the GOP yet.

The same issues moderate Republicans faced in August haunt them still. The Kansas moderate Republican is an uneasy fit in the Democratic Party. Changing parties is not as easy as swapping a D for an R on a voter registration card. Different campaign support staffs and organizational networks exist that may not trust and support former opponents.

Voters might look at the move as the strategy of sore losers seeking the trappings of office more than a sincere desire to represent the public. Low-information state House and Senate campaigns might not have the same draw that higher profile statewide and federal races do.

And Republican voter registrations outnumber Democrats by a significant margin in Kansas, making any campaign harder to convince people to vote for them.

Transitions like this take time. Brungardt's endorsement might help Norlin and might be enough to make her competitive with Arpke. Even if she loses, though, conservatives may have won the battle but lost the war. The southern shift to Republicans took more than a decade. A well-organized Democratic campaign machine of the kind built during Sebelius' era could quickly rise to challenge the conservative-only Republican Party.

A lesson for moderate Republicans joining Democrats comes -- ironically -- from Gov. Brownback and his conservative allies. By coalescing around Brownback as a strong candidate, conservatives rebuilt a shattered Republican campaign apparatus quickly in 2010 and leveraged its strength in 2012 to remove moderates from their Senate perches. Turnarounds can come quickly, but only with the right candidates and an attractive message.

Republicans also provide a lesson for the message: Unfettered power is dangerous. Just as national Republicans used President Obama's filibuster-proof Senate against him in 2010, so could Kansas Democrats point out that what Gov. Brownback needs in Topeka is a loyal opposition in large enough numbers to hold his administration accountable.

The November elections will determine if moderate Republicans will embrace conservatives within their party or shift to the Democrats, but the effects of their decision may take a few elections to elicit.

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

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