The outsiders’ image of Kansas is of wheat fields and superhighways, but more Kansans now live in the greater Kansas City metro area than anywhere else. The largest county in the state is suburban Kansas City’s Johnson, where Sprint is headquartered and which is populated by upscale professionals. Johnson County has also been one of the most intense battlegrounds in the war between Kansas’s moderate Republicans and ultra-conservatives.
In 1998, as a result of the split between the Republicans, Democrat Dennis Moore was able to narrowly win the congressional seat that represents Johnson County over a far-right opponent. Moore only won 45 percent or so of Johnson County, but combined with neighboring Wyandotte County, the state’s only minority-majority county, and parts of Douglass County, which include liberal Lawrence, he was able to keep getting elected until he retired in 2010. The Republican state legislature then removed Lawrence from the district, and non-Tea Party Republican Kevin Yoder has held it securely ever since.
But the struggle goes on. The state Republican Party is currently in revolt over the extreme conservative politics of Governor Sam Brownback and his allies in the legislature. The leadership of the moderate Republican opposition comes out of Overland Park, the largest city in Johnson County. Olathe, the second largest city in Johnson County, remains a bastion of the religious right. (Peter Beinart wrote about Olathe’s politics in The New Republic in 1998.) But as is happening in other exurban areas—think of Loudon County in Northern Virginia—a more liberal, tolerant attitude, characteristic of young professionals, is beginning to gnaw at the edges of Olathe’s social conservatism. This fall, the struggle for Olathe’s soul will focus not only on the governor’s race, but on a race for the state legislature’s 30th district, which is concentrated in the northern part of the city and in neighboring Lenexa.
The district was held by Lance Kinzer, the Republican leader of the anti-abortion forces in the state legislature. Kinzer sponsored, among other things, a bill that required doctors to warn women who wanted an abortion of the medically unproven claim that it could cause breast cancer. Kinzer decided to retire this spring, and endorsed fellow social conservative Randy Powell to succeed him. In 2012, a Democrat, Liz Dickinson, former lobbyist for the National Organization for Women in Topeka, won 46 percent of the vote against Kinzer. That was partly the result of Dickinson’s indefatigable door-to-door campaigning, but also of growing moderate Republican dissatisfaction with Kinzer’s social views. Dickinson is now running against Powell for the seat.
I met Dickinson at the weekly meeting at the Tropicana restaurant in Lawrence (the home of the University of Kansas) of Drinking Liberally, a social event that began in New York last year and now takes place in 42 states. Dickinson, a 30 year old with short brown hair, glasses, and an engaging smile, was asking for support from the 25 or so people who had gathered that evening. Dickinson is a professional photographer who has a small business with her husband that does weddings and other special events. She is married and has two children, and said during her first campaign, in answer to a question about why she cared about gay rights, that she is bisexual. She told me that no one has raised the issue during her campaign, but I can’t imagine it plays well among some of Olathe’s Republicans.
In Topeka, Dickinson took stands on abortion and gay rights, and these issues are close to her heart, but like Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis, she is stressing funding for education in her campaign. “My opponent doesn’t believe in the Department of Education,” she explained. “He admits he doesn’t know much about Common Core, but he is opposed to it. He doesn’t stand for women’s rights.” She acknowledges that being a Democrat in Olathe is still a lonely faith. “I’ll knock on a door, and someone will say, ‘I am a Democrat but no one else is,” and then someone else down the block will say the same thing.”
I saw Powell at his split-level home in a quiet, relatively new subdivision in upper middle-class Olathe. Powell is a financial advisor with Edward Jones Investments, but his true passion is his Christian mission and pro-life activism. He has been a missionary, and is a lay leader at an independent evangelical church. Powell is in his mid-50s, but looks much younger. He is thin, almost gaunt, with light brown hair and horned rimmed glasses.
In contrast to Dickinson, Powell emphasizes his social and religious commitments. When I ask him about his differences with Dickinson, he says, “I think Liz is probably pro-choice, I would call her anti-life. I think she is concerned—is it the lesbian gay bisexual? Is it LGBT?—she was upset about that. I would look at it from the flipside of that coin. I think marriage should be between a man and a woman. Setting aside my religious convictions, show me a culture that has survived and prospered where marriage isn’t between a man and a woman.”
When I ask him about his emphasis on social issues rather than on taxes or education, he responds, “Let’s face it. When we look back on history, a tax cut for all Kansans is admirable, but when you look back at history, it is social justice that is remembered. Those are the kinds of thing people become passionate about, that make a difference. I’m all for the tax cuts, but the social issues are what really drive me.”
When I was in Kansas in late August, Powell, who defeated a GOP moderate in the primary, had not begun campaigning against Dickinson, but Dickinson was already going door-to-door. She has to be the underdog in the heavily Republican district and in an election year when Republicans are more likely to turn out than Democrats. But the revolt of the moderates against Brownback, which is well represented in Overland Park, could carry over to northern Olathe. In that case, Johnson County will once again defy Kansas’s reputation as a dependably red-state and send a former lobbyist for NOW back to Topeka, but this time as a state legislator.