Opinion | A Blue Wave in Kansas? Don’t Be So Surprised
WICHITA, Kan. — At an open-air debate at the Kansas State Fair in September, a raucous crowd roared, cheered and booed with such vigor that the candidates often were forced to pause before they could speak.
The Republican candidate for governor, Kris Kobach, and the independent, Greg Orman, had strong support in the packed bleachers. But the loudest cheers, to my ears, were for the Democrat, State Senator Laura Kelly. She fed off the approval, delivering zingers and carrying her small stature with swagger.
The loudest boos were for Mr. Kobach, the secretary of state, who earlier in the year had been found in contempt of federal court for failing to notify unlawfully suppressed voting registrants of their eligibility. “You’re a criminal!” one man shouted several times. Mr. Kobach paused for a beat and shook his head with a laugh.
The heckler was my partner, a white, male construction worker who is the most radical progressive I know. Soon, someone behind us took up the call. “You’re a criminal!” she shouted. I turned, and a middle-aged white woman wearing a pro-teachers T-shirt smiled sweetly at me. “So he can take a break,” she said, nodding at my mate.
One might wonder how Ms. Kelly, a moderate Democrat similar to Hillary Clinton in politics, age and strategy, decisively won a governor’s race in “Trump country” against a candidate whose signature anti-immigrant tactics precisely align with President Trump’s xenophobic closing argument to midterm voters. Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both traveled to Kansas to campaign for Mr. Kobach, as did Donald Trump Jr.
So, liberal Laura Kelly — how? One reason is that there never was a “Trump country” at all. Rather, like many “red” states, Kansas is a gerrymandered, dark-monied place where election outcomes may have more to do with who votes and how those votes are counted than with the character of the place. In such states, Fox News and conservative talk radio have artfully prodded white fears to great effect, but about 40 percent of voters routinely reject the Republican Party. In Kansas, Mr. Trump won the general election, but Bernie Sanders won far more votes than Mr. Trump during the state’s caucuses. Party tribalism has increased here, in recent years, but a legacy of independent, unpredictable politics runs deeper.
In fact, dozens of former and current Kansas Republican lawmakers endorsed Ms. Kelly, supporting what the governor-elect in her victory speech on Tuesday night called not a “blue wave” but a “wave of common sense.”
To be sure, if the Electoral College is our barometer, Kansas is deep red. It hasn’t gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. My home congressional district, a mix of rural counties and the city of Wichita, has been represented by a Republican for 23 years.
Nonetheless, as of election night, exactly one state has elected three female Democratic governors: Kansas — and all in the last 28 years.
Ms. Kelly’s win is notable not for being out of keeping with the political spirit of the state but for representing the end of what many Kansans woefully call “the Brownback era” — after the former governor Sam Brownback — when religious conservatism and free-market extremism made the state synonymous with far-right politics in national headlines.
Mr. Kobach is a different creature from Mr. Brownback, who for all his terrible ideas comes across as a man who believes in something larger than himself. Mr. Kobach, rather, is Trumpian — from disregard for the Constitution to grotesque displays of bravado, as when he joined a suburban summer parade in a Jeep mounted with a realistic replica of a .50-caliber machine gun. But the Kelly campaign rightly linked Mr. Kobach’s government-strangling economic vision to the unpopular Mr. Brownback, whose own voters turned against his 2012 “live experiment” with deep tax cuts once they saw what it wrought on public schools and roads.
Mr. Kobach ran ads that turned “liberal” into a pejorative and pledged to shield Kansas from outside forces like the federal government and immigrants. Ms. Kelly said she’d put political labels aside and work to build a better Kansas from the inside out.
At her election-night watch party, before Ms. Kelly’s race was called, the crowd cheered when a fellow pragmatist and the first-time candidate Sharice Davids defeated a four-term Republican in Kansas’s Third Congressional District. But a more staunch progressive did not fare as well. In the Fourth Congressional District, the civil rights attorney and military veteran James Thompson spent 20 months unapologetically championing Medicare for All and marijuana legalization. He won over leftist populists and fed-up conservatives alike but came up short in his effort to flip one of the nation’s most conservative districts, home to the billionaire Charles Koch and Koch Industries.
Kansas’s big Democratic wins, it turned out, were by women with less bold platforms who emphasized working across the aisle. It seems that if Midwestern states are bound for a return to their democratic-socialist roots — prairie populism, it was once called — they will first require a return to center in female form.
Regional wins by moderate Democrats prompted one writer to suggest that the next Democratic presidential nominee be “a steaming pot of Midwestern Nice.” Midwestern Nice, this Midwestern woman must note, is not necessarily lacking in radical ideas or competitive fire but is never mean or flustered. It is kind yet often plainly unimpressed. Think of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings in September when the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh disrespected the authority of Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Her pained smile conveyed that she was having precisely none of it, but she avoided being reactive. Later, Judge Kavanaugh offered an apology, and Senator Klobuchar — who won re-election this week by a landslide — accepted.
Laura Kelly, whose campaign emphasized public schools, Medicaid expansion and infrastructure, does her job with the same steadiness. So did Kansas’ last Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius, the former Department of Health secretary and an Affordable Care Act architect. Kansas elected Ms. Sebelius twice, not so long ago, along with a lieutenant governor she poached from the Republican Party for the sake of getting things done.
If this be Trump country, it seems the only thing more compelling to its voter majority than a far-right Republican man is a no-nonsense Democratic woman, albeit not one named Clinton.
My white construction-worker dad, who can be found razzing fellow workers on job sites that they’re “socialist and just don’t know it,” voted for Ms. Kelly in his first-ever midterm participation. The “I voted” sticker symbolically placed on the left side of his hard hat tells the overlooked story of Kansas and the nation: More people are paying attention than at any point in our lifetimes, and this bodes poorly for far-right factions propped up in recent decades by impassioned religious and ideological bases.
Yet Hell wasn’t torn down in a day. Moderates and progressives in conservative strongholds who lost close, hard-fought battles — competitive races largely owed to a political awakening on the left all of two years ago — know that correcting the nation’s course will take time. Like Mr. Thompson, whose campaign made a special effort in rural and small-town communities, they have lost a race yet changed culture along the way such that a future race might be won.
States like mine began their battles with the far right long before much of the nation did. We are thus further down the road of recovering from its effects. By the 2016 election, in Kansas, bipartisan coalitions had formed to oust extremist legislators. Soon a band of moderate lawmakers repealed Mr. Brownback’s draconian tax cuts and allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for public schools to raise salaries and restore cut positions.
There remains across the nation a rural-urban political split that newly elected Democrats such as Ms. Kelly must seek to bridge. Both sides of the aisle remain a hot mess of diverging ideas and realignments. But moderates and progressives beyond this place might take heart: Kansas just held the gubernatorial version of Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump, and more people were with her.
Sarah Smarsh (@Sarah_Smarsh) is the author of “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.”
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