A Look at Kansas

Posted August 29, 2003 at 4:24pm

For Kansas Democrats, newly elected Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) is much more than the figure who took back the statehouse after eight years of Republican rule. She is the symbol of a rejuvenated state party that hopes to use her victory to regain political parity in the Sunflower State. [IMGCAP(1)]

“Kathleen’s victory was a beginning for the Democratic Party,” said state

Chairman Larry Gates. “It makes recruiting and building a farm team much easier.”

Gates added that he sees “run[ning] the Kansas Democratic Party in campaign mode nonstop” as the best way to reverse the party’s fortunes of the past decade.

There is much work to do. Republicans control the vast majority of statewide offices, both houses of the state Legislature as well as five of the six federal positions. Even Sebelius’ lieutenant governor, John Moore, was a registered Republican until he switched parties just before being selected as her running mate.

Although Sebelius won a rather convincing 53 percent to 45 percent victory over conservative state Treasurer Tim Shallenburger (R), she was not able to sweep a slate of Democratic candidates in on her coattails. Democrats lost open-seat races for attorney general, insurance commissioner and state treasurer and failed to field a strong challenger to Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh (R).

Looking at last year’s results, Kansas Republican Party Chairman Dennis Jones concluded: “The Republican Party is demonstrably still the dominant political party in Kansas.”

Democrats, however, believe that the victories of Sebelius and Rep. Dennis Moore (D), who won a third term in the 3rd district, provide them a road map to further success. Both candidates were able to hold the vast majority of the Democratic base while cobbling together a coalition of independents and disgruntled Republicans. They were aided by the war between conservative and moderate wings of the state GOP that has been going on for more than a decade.

In the governor’s race, Shallenburger defeated two more moderate candidates in the primary, opening the door for Sebelius to attract moderate Republicans in the general election.

A divisive primary in the 3rd district saw the more moderate GOPer, Adam Taff, emerge from the primary but fail to fully energize the conservative wing of the party to turn out in the fall. Moore won that race 50 percent to 47 percent. Moore originally won the seat in 1998 by defeating then-Rep. Vince Snowbarger (R), whose conservative leanings had alienated many of the centrists in the party.

As the only Democrat in the Congressional delegation, Moore is likely to be a prime Republican target until he vacates the seat or is defeated. Even Democrats admit that demographic trends in the 3rd district, which is centered in Kansas City, will make it increasingly difficult for Moore or any other Democrat to win there.

The 2001 Census showed that Johnson County — the strongest Republican area in the district — grew by nearly 100,000 people during the 1990s. In contrast, the Democratic base county of Wyandotte lost 4,000 people in the past decade.

Republicans currently have two of their rising stars in Taff and former Justice Department official Kris Kobach fighting for the right to challenge Moore. State Rep. Patricia Barbieri-Lightner (R) is also running.

In his first race, Taff, a former fighter pilot, surprised many observers by defeating conservative physician Jeff Colyer in last year’s August primary. He ran a solid general election campaign — beating Moore by 9 points in Johnson County — but still lost district-wide. He quickly announced that he would run again.

Kobach is a former Overland Park city councilman who for the past two years worked as a counsel at the Justice Department. He represents the more conservative wing of the party.

Although the seat will be a very tough hold for Democrats when Moore leaves, the name most often mentioned as his replacement is Wyandotte County Mayor Carol Marinovich (D).

First elected to the post in 1997, Marinovich won a second four-year term in 2001. One Democratic observer noted that she has received kudos for her economic development work and is a well-known name among the district’s voters. One potential drawback, however, is that her base is in Wyandotte, making it all the more difficult for her to make the necessary inroads in Johnson County to win the seat. Moore had a long political history in Johnson before being elected in 1998.

Democrats believe that as the 3rd moves away from them, the 4th and 2nd districts will become more and more winnable. The 4th, which takes in Wichita, was held by former Rep. Dan Glickman (D) from 1976 to 1994, when he was ousted by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R). Tiahrt was narrowly re-elected in 1996 but has regularly improved his winning percentages since then.

Although the district would have given George W. Bush 59 percent in 2000, nearly two-thirds of the vote comes from Sedgwick County — which includes Wichita — where Tiahrt has won by more narrow margins.

The strongest candidate for Democrats, and the only one who might be strong enough to beat Tiahrt head-to-head, strategists said, is Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton.

Norton’s political career began in the early 1990s as a member of the Haysville City Council, where he also served as mayor. But he was perhaps better known as the manager of a Target store in east Wichita.

In 1999, Haysville was severely damaged by a tornado and Norton quit his Target job — after nearly two decades — to work full-time on cleanup efforts. He was elected to the county commission in 2000 and despite being the organization’s only Democrat was unanimously selected as its chairman earlier this year.

Other possible Democratic candidates are only likely to run if the seat comes open. These include former state Rep. Henry Helgerson, who is the frontrunner for an open Wichita-based state Senate seat, and Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston.

Tiarht is seen as a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2006.

The 2nd district currently held by Rep. Jim Ryun (R) is even more fertile ground than the 4th by the numbers, but Democrats have failed to muster a serious candidate in the past two elections.

The district would have given Bush only 54 percent in 2000 — just 1 point better than Moore’s 3rd — and Democratic Rep. Jim Slattery held it from 1982 until an ill-fated gubernatorial run in 1994.

Ryun is among the most conservative-voting members of the House, and, Democrats argue, that record puts him out of step with the district. They believe state Rep. R.J. Wilson is their strongest potential candidate over the next few cycles.

Rep. Jerry Moran’s sprawling 66-county 1st district is the most solidly Republican in the state and is not likely to be contested prior to the next round of redistricting — if ever.