Twenty-five years ago, my colleague Al Cigler and I wrote a paper titled “Two-Party Politics in a One-Party State.” The thesis was simple. Although Democrats at that time (1991) controlled the governorship, commanded a slender majority in the Kansas House, and held two (of five) U.S. House seats, Kansas remained essentially a Republican state, albeit one where Democrats could compete successfully for many offices.
Party registration numbers, the GOP’s dominance of U.S. Senate elections (since 1932), and Republican majorities in presidential contests (since 1964) led us to conclude the state remained strongly, if not overwhelmingly, Republican. Still, the Democratic Party of the 1970s through 1994 proved highly competitive. Most importantly, it regularly captured the governorship; from 1966 through 1994, Democratic governors (R. Docking, Carlin, Finney) served for 20 years, while Republicans Bennett and Hayden each served one four-year term.
It could have easily been worse for the GOP.
In 1974, Democratic Rep. Bill Roy came close to defeating incumbent senator Bob Dole, and Democratic Attorney General Vern Miller lost by just 3,000 votes to Bennett. In 1977 and 1991, Democrats won control of the Kansas House, and throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s, Democrats were highly competitive in both chambers.
So what happened?
One partial answer is that guns and abortion crowded out economic issues for some voters, and the moderate wing of the GOP began to lose traction. But more important has been the nationalization of state politics in Kansas.
Two significant national GOP “wave” elections changed the composition of the Kansas Legislature. In 1994, after the first two years of the Clinton administration and a failed attempt to pass national health care reform, Republicans won sweeping victories across the country. In Kansas, this meant Democrats lost 14 seats and stabilized their numbers in the House at about 45. Still, on key votes, they could join with moderate Republicans to pass key legislation, as with school funding in 2005.
The second red “wave,” of 2010, after Obama’s successful national health care reform, swept Sam Brownback into office, along with an overwhelming GOP majority, including an absolute majority of far-right Republicans. In 2012, Brownback and his allies linked moderate Republicans to Obama and, using national funding, eliminated most centrists from the Senate. Kansas Democrats recently have held eight (of 40) Senate seats and approximately 28 (of 125) House seats
In 2014, national politics again intervened to affect the Kansas partisan balance. After almost losing his primary election, Sen. Pat Roberts was widely seen as vulnerable, and retaining his seat was crucial for Republicans to capture the Senate. In the three months before the general election, millions upon millions of dollars in outside funding was spent to defend Roberts’ seat; he won handily, and the far-more-vulnerable Brownback narrowly won re-election, pulled across the finish line by Roberts’ anti-Obama campaign ads, mailers and robo-calls.
To be sure, Kansas appears a far deeper red state than it was 15 or 20 years ago. The state Republican Party has maintained its advantages, and extremely conservative activists have worked effectively to elect their candidates.
So, what of 2016? Republicans will nominate a presidential candidate in Donald Trump who did poorly in our caucuses, and, according to one Kansas survey, actually might trail Hillary Clinton. Moreover, his bombastic campaign style and questionable statements likely weaken his appeal at the top of the ticket.
At the same time, Brownback, while not on the ballot, dominates the politics of Kansas, largely in a negative way. Most incumbents have little desire to associate themselves with him, while Democratic (and moderate Republican) candidates are readying their ads, which explicitly link their incumbent opponents to the governor.
Within a few months, we’ll know whether Kansas will remain its deep-red self of the past six years or will return, perhaps, to “two-party competition in a one-party state.”
Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.