Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Wichita Mayoral Race: Winners and Losers

[For anyone interested, here is the original and somewhat more detailed version of my editorial on Tuesday's primary, which appeared in The Wichita Eagle this morning.]

The mayoral primary is over; let’s run through some of the winners and losers here:

Winner: State Representative Brandon Whipple. He was the first major challenger to Mayor Jeff Longwell to announce his candidacy, and as a longtime state representative, with a strong basis of support in his south Wichita legislative district, and a record as a moderate Democrat--or, more accurately, a fairly progressive Democrat on most social issues, and a fairly conservative Democrat on most fiscal issues--he had good name recognition and media exposure from the start. But of the three major candidates (Lyndy Wells being the third), he raised the least amount of money, though he had the most small-dollar donors. With both Longwell and Wells outspending him, and with the distraction of the small but sometimes angry fight between different factions in the local Democratic party (see below), resulting in some Democrats attacking the Whipple campaign, he probably had reason to worry about voter turn-out (also see below). In the end, though, the hard work of Whipple, his family, and his team paid off.

Losers: certain Democrats. Of course, city elections here in Wichita are (unfortunately, in my view) officially nonpartisan. But for all sorts of obvious reasons, party politics remains central to most serious candidates' abilities to raise money, develop a message, and connect with voters. And so, predictably, people invested making those connections always have their own opinions and priorities, and want to make certain party connections serve as a vehicle for their priorities, not someone elses.

As it happened, in this election there was a small but bitter fight–conducted almost entirely behind the scenes; with the exception of a single article in The Wichita Eagle, if you weren't a professional activist or politician or part of certain social media networks, you likely missed it entirely–over whose priorities would guide those voter connections. It isn't easy to tell exactly who was responsible for what being said or done in this fight (though there's plenty of accusations going around); hence my reference to “certain” Democrats. The point is, there were Democrats who supported Whipple’s campaign, and there were Democrats who supported Wells, or even Longwell, despite both being Republicans. Part of the reason for the fight is clearly ideological, rooted in ongoing arguments within not just the local Democratic party, but the state and national one as well, going back to the Clinton-Sanders fight of 2016 and dealing with, among other things, how (or if) the party should push its increasingly progressive priorities in conservative parts of the country. Looking at it this way highlights some real curiosities--for example, the fact that Whipple, who has a doctorate, wrote his dissertation on exactly this topic.

But ideology may only be a small part of the fight; more likely, what happened was mostly generational, with Whipple and many members of his team skewing young (the fact that his election night party was held at a downtown LGBTQ-friendly bar is just one indication), while some of the prominent figures who opposed him being people who have worked with the party for decades. Or if its not about the old guard and the new guard, then it's about personal and campaign styles, with some Democrats confident in their longstanding approach to Kansas's mostly conservative voters, and others wanting to flip that script. These are all serious issues, and it’s unfair to reduce it to a couple of paragraphs. But however you read it, the facts remain: going into the general election, certain–not many, but definitely at least a few–prominent local Democrats are going to be feeling angry, embarrassed, or frustrated; whether they stay on the sidelines, jump ship, or eat some crow and join Team Whipple remains to be seen.

Winner: Getting out the vote. GOTV operations are, for all their permutations over the decades, pretty much inseparable from the whole mystique of mass political parties throughout American history. And yet, there has hardly been a single election cycle over the last 20 years when someone hasn’t made the claim that the ground-game of politics is passé. Certainly it is easy to be convinced by expensive advertising campaigns, by the omnipresence of social media, and by massive party polarization, that perhaps the day of door-knocking is finally, truly over.

While primary election contests are different from general election contests in a dozen ways, I think one can nonetheless count this tiny election--with less than 10% of registered voters bothering to cast a ballot, which is unfortunately typical--is evidence against that thesis. Longwell had the advantage of incumbency and his record as mayor to promote, and Wells enjoyed the endorsement of many major players and organizations throughout Wichita (including the Eagle!). The big money and “establishment” narratives were nearly all on their sides. But GOTV cares little about narratives; it cares about making sure potential voters are “touched” by campaign workers directly, again and again. That operation, probably more than anything else, enabled Whipple to squeak by Wells, and advance to challenge Longwell in November.

Winner and Loser: Mayor Jeff Longwell. Obviously he’s not really a loser: he not only was one of the two winners of the primary, he was the one with the most votes–32% for him, compared to Whipple’s 26%. And that was with the mayor’s campaign very much in low gear (in contrast to what it will surely be the case for the general); he spent less than half of the money he raised for the race, after all. But nonetheless, you have to see the big picture: his record as mayor inspired a major challenger from within his own political party, and he barely had the support of 1/3rd of the primary voters. True, he can look back at his 2015 primary win, when he advanced with only 28% of the vote, and went on to be elected mayor. But in that case, he wasn’t the incumbent. By comparison, incumbent mayor Carl Brewer won 77% of the vote in the 2011 primary, before cruising to re-election, while incumbent mayor Carlos Mayans came out of the 2007 primary with only 26% of the vote, and went on to an embarrassing loss.

None of this takes away all the obvious advantages Longwell will enjoy in November. His record as mayor is obviously positive to many (it's probably not a coincidence that a ceremony honoring the completion of one major part of the baseball stadium which, for better or worse, is bound to be Longwell's greatest legacy, took place the day after the election). But looking at the results on Tuesday night, I suspect our mayor didn’t feel quite like the winner he would have prefer to have been.

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