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SPOTLIGHT
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Last fortress falls

Published on -11/8/2012, 8:10 AM

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You've probably read in these pages recently about the significant political changes Ellis County has undergone over the last decade. A long-standing Democratic bastion in Republican western Kansas, Ellis County's voter registration numbers shifted to plurality Republican in 2008 and have increased the GOP advantage since.

Still, Kansas Democrats looked to Ellis County and the surrounding counties as a bulwark for their party. The presence of former Sen. Janis Lee and Rep. Eber Phelps were human symbols of the Democratic rampart built in northwest Kansas.

Lee has left the Legislature -- and apparently just in time. Remapped into the 40th Senate District, Lee's replacement, Allen Schmidt, must have felt like he had brought the proverbial knife to a gunfight. Bringing only one county into a district with 15 well-accustomed to Ralph Ostmeyer's presence did not bode well for Schmidt, but even his local name recognition and popularity couldn't push him more than a hundred votes ahead of his Republican opponent in his home county. The rest of the district sealed Schmidt's fate.

The last blue outpost in a frontier of western Kansas red was conquered.

Schmidt's defeat left Eber Phelps as the last man standing -- but not for long. A 16-year incumbent, Phelps rose to the ranks of minority whip, quite an accomplishment for any legislator. But once Phelps had a quality Republican challenger, the new partisan reality of Ellis County meant Phelps was a sitting duck. Sue Boldra's 800-vote victory over Phelps coupled with Ostmeyer's defeat of Schmidt (not to mention Barb Wasinger's victory giving Republicans a 2-1 advantage on the county commission) means that the last fortress for western Kansas Democrats has fallen. Masada has been taken, with just Dean Haselhorst and Donna Maskus surviving.

Democrats shocked by the events of the election can take solace in national trends, where there appears to be a leftward shift. But, here in Ellis County, the last fortress for Democrats has fallen. Now we will see if the party rebuilds or slinks into minority status.

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

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