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Thursday, October 02, 2014

Predictable Predictions about Kansas

The Wichita Eagle ran another one of my columns this morning; this is a slightly expanded version of it:

Politics in Kansas today is suddenly big news. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Mother Jones, even The Guardian from the UK: all have lately been filing frequent stories from Kansas, all about the latest poll results and the latest legal moves in Kansas’s major statewide races. The national and international media are watching the calculations surrounding Pat Robert's anemic senatorial re-election run, watching Governor Sam Brownback's surprisingly difficult re-election run, and watching the impressive challenge which former Republican Jean Schodorf is making against conservative hero Kris Kobach as our secretary of state. We haven't gotten this kind of attention--certainly not during the November portion of the election cycle--in a long time.

And that's not surprising. After all, think about those aforementioned races. We have a solid but uninspiring long-time Republican senator being challenged by a popular independent, Greg Orman–who is now, with the absence of any Democrat from the ticket, seen as the favorite to win. Next we have our polarizing Republican Secretary of State controversially involved in that same Senate race, all while running for a very tight race himself. And finally we have the governor’s race against state representative Paul Davis, one in which more than a few conservative Republicans see the fate of a vital ideologically anti-government experiment hanging in the balance. All of that adds up, obviously, to some fascinating political news.

But for the national–and international–media, the tone of surprise is pretty constant. For so many, Kansas is assumed to be an easy place to explain, politically speaking. We’re deep red, we’re conservatives, we vote Republican: end of story. True, sometimes journalists will go back a century to our Populist past, or even beyond that to Kansas’s bloody birth before and during the Civil War, but failing that, usually they just present Kansas as a place where surprises like we’re seeing this election season don’t ever happen--the idea that, in a year which is looking to be a good one for Republicans, that Kansas of all places might be the place where conservatism and liberalism do ideological battle just seems weird.

All that proves, though, is how short many peoples’ memories--and how brief media-driven election narratives--really are.

Think back to 2004, when Thomas Frank published his blockbuster What’s the Matter with Kansas? That book (which, for the record, I never especially liked; other books made similar arguments in a much more careful way, and Frank himself has written better books) argued that the political mix of Christian piety and anti-tax rhetoric which has characterized many Republican claims over the past twenty years was mostly cooked up in places like Kansas. The Sunflower State became the ideal laboratory, Frank asserted, for perfecting populist resentment against liberalism, making Kansas the real heart of modern American conservatism. All that became part of the popular and national political narrative of our state.

But then, move forward four years. Democrat Kathleen Sebelius was well into her second term as Kansas’s governor. High profile Republicans like Mark Parkinson and Paul Morrison switched parties and maintained their seats of power (and the latter notoriously defeating social conservative hero Phill Kline to do so). The New Republic ran a cover story on “What’s Not the Matter with Kansas”--clearly, the Sunflower State was more complicated than they thought!

Move forward yet another four years. By then, the national story was the Brownback revolution, and the way the state Republican party–with the political and financial support of Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Chamber–got more reliable conservatives elected to the state legislature, primarily by undermining some of their own long-timer members (one of whom, perhaps not coincidentally, was Jean Schodorf). This controversial effort was successful, granting Brownback enough legislative support to push through his anti-tax, state-shrinking, supposedly job-creating agenda. Clearly then, Kansas actually was red all the way!

Now move forward again yet one more four years, and we have today. Republicans in the legislature look quite safe, and there is no indication that there is shift taking place in overall party preference; the idea that Kansas might be turning blue, or even just purple, is ridiculous. But for all sorts of personal and ideological reasons--and when you have leaders that have explicitly connected themselves and their time on office to the triumph of various avowedly conservative policy agendas, the overlap between those reasons is large--the top of the Republican ticket is struggling, with potentially huge consequences for the conservative agenda and the national Republican party. How surprising, says these media voices, to see such an unexpected turn-around in such a predictable place as Kansas!

This is, to be sure, a fascinating political season in our state, with many unexpected events. But in my view, the single most unsurprising thing about it all is the fact that, when it comes to Kansas, many journalists who parachute in from far afield or even abroad keep getting surprised, again and again and again.

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