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Change of Heartland

What's not the matter with Kansas.

Manhattan, Kansas

The debate between Representative Dennis Moore and his Republican challenger Phill Kline in October 2000 had yet to begin, and I was roaming the halls of Shawnee Mission South High School looking for Kansans to interview. I came upon a diminutive, nattily dressed man who seemed to be looking for a reporter to engage. What were Kline's chances of unseating Moore, I asked him. Moore didn't stand a chance, he assured me. "In Kansas, there really is no Democratic Party, " he explained. "There are only two wings of the Republican Party." When I asked for the man's name, he replied incredulously that he was Senator Sam Brownback.

To a journalist from Washington, Brownback wasn't all that recognizable a figure back in 2000. Yet his significance in Kansas politics was beyond dispute. Both he and Kline owed their political rise to the same phenomenon: a sharp rightward turn in local politics that had taken place over the course of a decade. Four years later, Thomas Frank (now a tnr contributor) would bemoan this state of affairs in his bestselling book What's the Matter with Kansas?. Thanks mainly to Frank, the story of how Kansas had been taken over by conservative ideologues would become, in the minds of Democrats nationwide, a symbol for the abysmal state of their party and their cause.

At the time I spoke to him, Brownback had plenty of reason to be confident that Kline would win the following month. Moore was the only Democrat in Kansas's congressional delegation, having won a close race in 1998. Republicans held a three-to-two statewide edge in party registration, and they controlled the major state offices as well as both houses of the legislature. Of the 22 state representatives from Johnson County--the heart of Moore's district--only one was a Democrat.

Yet Brownback turned out to be wrong--not just about Kline but about Kansas's Democratic Party as well. Moore won reelection by 50 to 47 percent and, over the next six years, solidified his hold on the seat. Democrat Kathleen Sebelius won the governorship in 2002 and was reelected by a landslide in 2006. In last fall's election, two former Republicans who had become Democrats captured the other top positions in the state, and another ex-Republican upset a five-term GOP incumbent. Today, Democrats control half of Kansas's U.S. House seats. And, as 2008 approaches, another prominent Republican has decided to switch parties to run as a Democrat.

None of this means that Kansas is turning blue. It is doubtful, for instance, that a liberal Democrat could carry the state in next year's presidential election. But, like Indiana, Nebraska, and other reputedly red states, Kansas has become politically competitive. The one-party state that Brownback spoke of in 2000 no longer exists. For that, the Kansas senator can blame demography, the Bush administration, and--well, himself.

Kansas has long been given to bouts of political fervor--even if they weren't always conservative ones. The state's ties to the GOP go back to the 1850s and the party's founding commitment to free land, free soil, and free labor. After the Civil War, Kansans retained their allegiance to the Republican Party in much the same way post-bellum white Mississippians remained Democrats. Kansas also retained the zeal of John Brown and the abolitionists, becoming the home of temperance crusader Carrie Nation as well as a hotbed of the Populist movement. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Populists had disappeared as an organized party and Kansas had returned to the Republican fold, but you can still find traces of anti-Wall Street, anti-corporate sentiment in the state's small towns and rural areas.

For most of the twentieth century, Kansas was dominated by moderate Republicans--Alf Landon, Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Dole, Nancy Landon Kassebaum-- who generally backed civil rights and the rudiments of the welfare state. They took different positions on abortion--Dole was pro-life and Kassebaum was pro-choice--but were essentially moderate on social issues.

By the late 1980s, however, with Ronald Reagan's election and the rise of the new right, Kansas politics had begun to regain its earlier fervor. John Brown and Carrie Nation returned, but this time as anti-abortion agitators. As Frank recounts in his book, the Kansas pro-life movement came of age during the summer of 1991 in blue-collar Wichita. In what became known as the "Summer of Mercy," Operation Rescue tried to shut down area clinics that performed abortions. At the end of August that year, 35,000 protestors jammed a stadium at Wichita State University to hear Pat Robertson and to commit themselves to transforming the state's politics.

When, in response, moderate Republicans in Topeka attempted to pass an abortion-rights bill that would have prevented challenges to Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement started organizing to take over the Republican Party. By 1995, pro-lifers controlled many local GOP committees and the party's state chairmanship. While their signature issue was abortion, they also adopted the agenda of the national right--including opposition to gun control, support for tax cuts, and hostility toward government spending. Kansas State political scientist Joe Aistrup calls these conservatives--who wanted to expand government's regulation of personal life while shrinking its economic role--"bipolar Republicans."

The Kansas conservatives showed their muscle in 1996, after the moderate Republican governor, Bill Graves, appointed his like-minded lieutenant governor, Sheila Frahm, to fill Bob Dole's vacated Senate seat. The conservatives recruited Brownback, a wealthy Kansan who had become an anti-abortion crusader in the House, to oust Frahm in the subsequent primary. After that, the conflict between the moderates and the conservatives only grew more heated. In 1998, the two factions began to fight about education as well as abortion. The conservatives won control of the state board of education and promptly removed the requirement that high school biology courses teach evolution. That provoked an outcry from the moderates, who won back a majority on the board in 2000 only to see the conservatives reclaim control in 2004. Last year, the board flipped yet again, this time back to the moderates.

As the bitterness grew, many moderate Republicans stopped voting for conservatives in general elections, and some moderate Republican politicians, wary of trying to win nominations in a GOP dominated by conservatives, began to consider switching parties. By declaring war on moderates in their own party, conservatives ended up empowering Democrats. Brownback and his ilk, it seemed, had overreached.

But GOP infighting alone might not have breathed new life into the Democratic Party had it not been for the rise of a new group of moderate Republicans and independent voters clustered in the state's largest and fastest growing county. Once a mere suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, Johnson County, which contains almost 20 percent of the state's population, was transformed during the 1990s into an urban-suburban area with a concentration of financial and telecommunications firms. In the early part of the decade, the county had been known for its religious-right activists, who were based primarily in Shawnee and Olathe. (See Peter Beinart, "Battle for the Burbs," October 19, 1998.) But those two towns are overshadowed by even more affluent and populous parts of the county. And the professionals and middlemanagers who live in those areas are largely moderate Republicans. These voters were happy to support a Republican like Graves, but they heartily disliked the conservatives who had been trying to take over the state GOP--not just for their stands on abortion and evolution, but also for their reluctance to support spending on education and high-tech research and development.

Kansas's third congressional district is dominated by Johnson County but also includes small, Democratic Wyandotte County, which contains a nonwhite majority, and liberal Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas. In 1996, moderate Republican Jan Meyers, who held the third district's seat, retired. She was succeeded by Olathe lawyer Vince Snowbarger, who was backed by the Christian right. In 1998, Moore, a Democrat who had been the district attorney of Johnson County, challenged the unimpressive Snowbarger. Because of Snowbarger's identification with the religious right, Moore commanded the support of prominent Republicans en route to victory. In 2000, he successfully defended his seat, despite Brownback's confidence that he would lose. And, with each successive election, the list of Republicans supporting Moore has grown. In 2006, he trounced his right-wing challenger by 30 points.

The combination of a fratricidal GOP and a rapidly expanding Johnson County electorate also help explain Democratic triumphs statewide. Last year, Kathleen Sebelius--the centrist Democratic governor first elected in 2002--coasted to reelection. But perhaps even more noteworthy were victories by two exRepublicans from Johnson County who ran alongside her: Former GOP state chairman Mark Parkinson ran for lieutenant governor on the Sebelius ticket, while Paul Morrison, Johnson County's district attorney, switched parties so he could run for state attorney general as a Democrat.

No contest better epitomized the clash between the new breed of Kansas Democrat and the Republican right than the race between Morrison and Phill Kline--who, after losing to Moore in 2000, was elected state attorney general in 2002. The balding, mustachioed Morrison, who speaks in a whisper, projects the image of the strong and silent Western lawman. When I interviewed him this summer in his Capitol office, he protested that he was "about as nonpartisan a person as you are going to find." He says he changed parties because "the people who were in leadership in the Republican Party, both in the county and state, weren't particularly interested in the things I was interested in. In fact, they weren't interested in the things most Kansans were interested in. One issue seems to drive what they do." That issue, of course, is abortion.

The square-jawed Kline comes off as a clean-cut Kansan, but when he speaks one hears echoes of the fanaticism he nourished during his previous career in talk radio. As a state legislator from Shawnee in the '90s, Kline was the typical bipolar Republican, advocating draconian tax cuts and restrictions on abortion. As attorney general, he focused on prosecuting abortion providers, sought private records of women who had undergone abortions, and even appointed an abortion protester--who had been arrested twelve times and who had no apparent interest in any other issue--to head the state's consumer-protection division. He also encouraged members of the state board of education to affix a sticker to biology textbooks declaring that evolution was a theory, not a fact. Morrison routed him by 16 points.

In the months since Morrison's triumph, Johnson County has continued to provide good news for Kansas Democrats. In Olathe, the conservative exurb, the recently retired superintendent of schools, Ron Wimmer, has announced that he is switching parties to run for the state Senate as a Democrat. Wimmer was put off by right-wing support for vouchers and creation science and by conservative opposition to funding a research center in Johnson County, but he has also been appalled by the conduct of the Bush administration. "I would rather not comment on the performance of the president of the United States," he told me. "I am afraid I wouldn't have good things to say." If Wimmer wins--and he seems to have a good chance-- he will have given the lie to the prevailing theory that exurbs like Olathe can provide conservative Republicans with a lasting majority nationwide.

Johnson County isn't the only place in Kansas where Democrats have made gains. The most surprising election of 2006 took place in a congressional district that includes Topeka and Manhattan but is dominated by traditionally conservative, rural counties stretching from the northeast to the southeast corner of the state. The winner there was Democrat Nancy Boyda, a feisty political novice--and yet another ex-Republican.

A chemist, Boyda had previously worked for the EPA and pharmaceutical companies. Like her parents and siblings, she voted Republican. But she became disenchanted with the GOP over Iraq and switched parties. In 2004, she challenged incumbent Republican Jim Ryun. That proved a daunting task. Outside of liberal Manhattan and Topeka, she encountered skepticism about her party affiliation, her qualified support for abortion rights, and her opposition to the war. She lost, 56 to 41 percent.

But, in 2006, she challenged Ryun again and found that voters had begun to turn against both the war and the Bush administration. Ryun, a former track star, had long campaigned as a champion of "family values," but in Washington he had become closely associated with K Street lobbyists, including Tom DeLay's former chief of staff Ed Buckham. So Boyda campaigned against the war, but she also highlighted Ryun's ties to K Street. She discovered what other Democratic candidates in the Midwest discovered last November: that, in the shadow of Iraq and Beltway corruption, small-town and rural voters were directing their populist resentment of elites not at Democratic support for gay marriage and abortion but rather at the administration's deception about Iraq and Republican ties to big business. Enough of these voters switched their allegiance from Ryun to Boyda to give her a four-point win.

To be sure, Boyda's seat will not be easy to defend next year. Already, Ryun has announced his intention to reclaim his perch, and Boyda says she is nervous about being painted as a "peacenik" or a "tree-hugger." Still, she has a few things going for her. At a community event I attended with her in the small town of Burlington, disillusionment with Bush and with corporate Washington was rife. Boyda's constituents were up in arms over illegal immigrants and gas prices, but they tended to blame Bush and his allies for both. "Big business is the key," a retired pipeline supervisor declared. "It controls government, it controls everything." And, once again, the Kansas Republican Party's bitter divisions may prove to be Democrats' greatest advantage: Ryun is likely to be challenged in the primary by State Treasurer Lynn Jenkins, a moderate. The two are already attacking each other.

In What's the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank plays down recent changes in state politics. He sees ex-Republicans like Morrison, Wimmer, and Boyda as Republicans in disguise, excessively sympathetic to business and unlikely to aid the liberal agenda. Even with such politicians changing sides, he writes, "the issues that motivated our parents' Democratic party will be permanently off the table." And it's true: Kansas is not Massachusetts, and Dennis Moore and Nancy Boyda are not going to vote like Barney Frank or Ed Markey. But Kansas is still changing--and changing in a significant way. The conversion of Parkinson, Morrison, and Boyda-- and the success of moderate Democrats like Sebelius and Moore--has meant the defeat of conservatives. Driving Phill Kline and Jim Ryun from power is no small accomplishment.

Moreover, Democratic moderates are not simply Republicans in disguise. Moore and Boyda vote for Democratic leaders in Congress. They may not support full- blown national health care, but they will oppose the privatization of Social Security and Medicare. Boyda says she is no "tree-hugger," but, as a former chemist, she understands global warming and wants to do something about it. And, though she was threatened by for refusing to cut funds for the military in Iraq, she has also voted for withdrawal--a courageous stand for someone who represents Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth. If moderates like her can continue to win, it will signify an important shift in the Sunflower State-- from right to center, from Brownback Republicans to Sebelius Democrats, from radicalism to relative sanity. There may still be things the matter with Kansas, but politics won't be one of them.