A Dark View of Kansas' Political Future

This is a column written by Davis Merritt, a Wichita-based journalist and author, and is used with permission. Mr. Merritt is not affiliated with the MainStream Coalition.


We’ve just glimpsed one possible future for Kansas politics, and all Kansans should consider it carefully before they vote for governor, starting with advance ballots next month.

No ordinary election, this one will determine if Kansas continues to recover its traditional moderate, shared approach to governing or morphs into the full partisan, scorched-earth mode represented by ex-governor Sam Brownback and present Republican contender Kris Kobach.

In the sixty years between 1950 and Sam Brownback’s first election in 2010, time in the governor’s chair was split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats. That division could happen in a historically Republican state only because there was relatively little philosophical distance among the candidates: they were moderates who understood the practical and communal need for comity and cooperation. They also understood—and rejected—the opportunity the office gave them to use division and personal enmity as weapons.

Not that all was sweetness and light; substantial differences existed in core beliefs among the gubernatorial candidates’ supporters. But the leaders saw those differences as political puzzles to be solved together rather than irreconcilable, zero-sum schisms to be maintained by brutish political tactics.

That changed after 2010. Brownback, holding a Bible in one hand and driving a tractor with the other, flowed into office on a tide of cultural issues, exuding a calm earnestness that disguised his radical agenda. He organized and led a purge of moderates from the Kansas Senate in 2012, which allowed him to implement reckless and deep tax cuts.

The inevitable failure of the trickle-down tax plan led to a small but significant legislative comeback of moderates in 2016, Brownback resigned for a federal position after the tax cuts were rescinded, and Jeff Colyer assumed the balance of Brownback’s term.

This year, Colyer was edged out in the Republican primary by Kobach. Instead of Brownback’s tractor, Kobach rode to victory in a red-white-and-blue Jeep rigged with a fake machine gun and ammo belt. It was a deliberate provocation which, as he hoped, offended many people. He mockingly called the negative reaction “a snowflake meltdown,” assuming that anyone bothered by the machine-gun image must be a liberal or at best anti-gun rights. No “we the people” in that calculation; just an unrepairable bifurcation of “them” versus “us.”

Last week, two-term (1978-1997) Republican U.S. senator Nancy Kassebaum endorsed Democrat Laura Kelly over Kobach. “It seems to me that Kobach has developed a record that shows a focus on ways and how to accomplish his end goals that I think are not the best for Kansas,” she said. Then, in an echo of more thoughtful political times, “I’m a Republican, but that doesn’t mean you walk lock-step always with the party.”

She joined former Republican governor (1995-2003) Bill Graves in supporting Kelly. Early in September, Graves said he did so because he believes “there is so much at stake in the state of Kansas….She has (what) we are looking for to lead the state during this difficult time and to reestablish the state to what it once was.”

The Kobach reaction, as articulated by campaign spokesperson Danedri Herbert: “Democrats trot out these same tired has-beens clinging to the past, pretending to be Republicans when they so clearly left the party a long time ago.”

Beg your pardon, Ma’am. The Republican party left the company of “tired has-beens” Kassebaum (R) and Graves (R) and John Carlin (D) and Mike Hayden (R) and Robert Docking (D) and William Avery (R) in favor of a politics of tribalism in which every opponent is an enemy and any disagreement is met with personal ridicule such as Herbert employed.

At its heart, election 2018 is less about issues of D versus R or far left versus far right than it is about responsible governance that heals more wounds and solves more problems than it creates. It’s about the real Kansas.

Mr. Merritt can be reached at dmerritt9@cox.net


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