Kansas Democrats Find Formula to Gain Foothold
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Kansas has long been known as a dependable Republican bastion, but Democrats in the Sunflower State hope to rebound this year with a most unusual tactic, recruiting Republicans to run as Democrats. That tactic may be paying off. Just last week, one of the state's highest profile Republicans traded in GOP red for Democratic blue.
From Kansas Public Radio, Peter Hancock has this report.
PETER HANCOCK reporting:
Four years ago, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius won the governor's race in this conservative state by running a decidedly middle-of-the-road campaign, focusing on the luring moderate Republican voters to cross party lines.
Earlier this year, her lieutenant governor, John Moore, announced he didn't want to run for a second term and that sent Sebelius searching for a new running mate. While everyone expected her to look for someone with bipartisan appeal, few seemed prepared when she toured the state last week to introduce Mark Parkinson as her new choice.
Governor KATHLEEN SEBELIUS (Democrat, Kansas): And yes, Mark is the former chairman of the state Republican Party. And that's just fine with me.
HANCOCK: It was also fine with many Kansas Democrats because Parkinson is actually the second high-profile Republican to switch parties this year. Paul Morrison, a longtime Republican prosecutor from suburban Kansas City, recently switched so that he could challenge the sitting Republican attorney general, Phill Kline.
Kline recently gained national attention when he tried to subpoena the medical records of women who've had abortions in Kansas. Morrison says because the Republican Party has moved so far to the right, many moderates like him now feel more at home with the Democrats.
Mr. PAUL MORRISON (Candidate for Kansas Attorney General): Most Democrats in Kansas are moderate folks. Most Democrats in Kansas are much more conservative than, I think, the Democrats are on the Coast. Most are fiscally conservative, socially moderate. I think that's where most Kansans fit, and that's certainly where I fit.
HANCOCK: The split between GOP moderates and conservatives has been deeper and more bitter in Kansas then in most other states. And here the split often has more of an impact because in many parts of this state, the Democratic Party is so weak, elections are decided at the Republican primary in August. That's enabled conservatives, who traditionally turn out in greater numbers in primaries, to gain enormous power in state government. And it's allowed them to take over the state party organization where leaders have shown little tolerance for moderates who disagree with them on key issues.
Tim Shallenburger, the current state GOP chairman, says he's not bothered when Republican politicians like Parkinson leave the Republican fold.
Mr. TIM SHALLENBURGER (Kansas GOP Chairman): He knows that he is way more liberal than the party in general, rank and file Kansans who oppose gay marriage, who oppose tax increases, who oppose giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, and he chose to become Democrat with Kathleen Sebelius who supports those things.
HANCOCK: The split has enabled a few Democrats, like Sebelius, to win elections by appealing directly to disaffected moderate Republicans on issues like healthcare and education. Larry Sabato, who directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says it's an unusual move for Democrats, but one that could lead to the same kind of party realignment that occurred in the 1960s in the South when Republicans wrested control from the Democrats.
Mr. LARRY SABATO, (Director Center for Politics, University of Virginia): The Democrats totally dominated the South and yet as more liberal Democrats were nominated, the conservatives saw an opportunity to move into the Republican Party. And indeed, the Republicans are now the dominant party in the South.
HANCOCK: Those kinds of realignments have occurred in other parts of the country, but rarely in the central Great Plains, the heart of Republican territory. But on a national level, Democrats know they have to make inroads here if they ever hope to win back control of Congress or the White House. Both parties will be watching to see if Democrats here have found the formula to do that.
For NPR News, I'm Peter Hancock in Topeka.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.