Remaking the GOP

Today is an election day here in Kansas, and at some point this afternoon we’ll finish our morning coffee and stroll over to the neighborhood Lutheran church to cast our votes in the Republican primary. It looks to be a good one.

All the action is on the Republican side of the ballot this time around. After almost four years of the hope and change thing the Democrats in these parts are so dispirited that they’re not bothering to contest many of the races, and they’ve even given up hope of retaining the coveted district attorney’s office that they’ve occupied for the past many years. They will apparently be running somebody or another for the fourth district congressional seat, but even our most die-hard Democratic friends can’t name any of the candidates and won’t even pretend that they’ll do any better than 30 percent or so in the general election.

There’s a lot going on in those Republican races, though. The primary is shaping up as an epic showdown in the longstanding internecine war between the moderates and the conservatives, with the future of the party and the state itself clearly at stake.

Although this is a notoriously Republican state, and has been ever since the abolitionist Republicans routed the pro-slavery Democrats back in the Bleeding Kansas days before the Civil War, the state’s government has never been nearly so conservative as its reputation would suggest. That’s partly because the state constitution hands a disproportionate share of power to a judiciary chosen by the lawyer class, and for some reason people always turn more liberal when they put on a black robe, but it’s mainly because the Republican party has long been dominated by the so-called “moderate” faction.

At least they used to be so called. This year they’ve taken to calling themselves “traditional” Republicans, much as the left re-branded itself “progressive” after “liberal” became a pejorative. Just as the left figured that no one is likely to be offended by progress, the moderates have calculated that tradition will have a greater appeal to the average Kansan than moderation.

In recent years the difference between a moderate Republican and a conservative one was defined in Kansas by the social issues, with the former taking a far more permissive stand than the latter on abortion and the currently respectable vices, but this year the most important distinction is about economics. The moderates are fond of an economic development policy heavy on tax abatements, subsidies, public-private partnerships, and similar crony capitalist schemes, while the conservatives want to cut taxes for everybody, eliminate any regulation that isn’t absolutely necessary, slash the state budget down to the barest essentials, and let the marketplace rather than the regulatory agencies pick the winners and losers. The conservatives have also stressed a promise to do anything in the state’s power to thwart implementation of Obamacare, but the issue has proved so overwhelmingly popular that even the most moderate of the moderates are now claiming to have been opposed to the bill all along.

Those Republicans that launched their political careers as anti-abortion crusaders continue to tout their pro-life credentials, but most of the advertisements that have been running non-stop on talk radio and filling up Republican mailboxes have focused on the economic debate. The conservatives accuse their rivals of being little better than Democrats, a most damning slur ‘round here, while the moderates have sought to portray their opponents of wanting to do nothing at all, as if that were a bad thing.

We think the conservatives have the stronger argument, and should go a long way to reforming the state’s Republican party in their image. We attribute the moderates’ long domination of the state in large part to the fact that somebody who wants to do things with government is more likely to run for office than someone who wants to stop it from doing things, but this year the need for governmental restraint is so dire that the conservatives have been able to run a fairly strong if somewhat inexperienced and unpolished slate of candidates.

Another reason for the moderates’ strength has been all the Kansans who would be Democrats in any other state but vote in the Republican primaries here so as not to waste their votes. This year the number of party-switchers will be especially high, given the utter pointlessness of the Democrat primary, but they will likely still be outnumbered by the bona fide Republicans who are tired of the seeing the state fall further behind in job creation despite all the best efforts of the eco-devo devotees.

Similar uprisings are occurring within the Republican parties of other states, and have already knocked out some entrenched incumbents who became too comfortable with the ever-expansive politics as usual. The newly energized conservatives should eventually exert their influence from the bottom all the way to top of the ticket Republican, and could even prove a decisive factor in helping the reputedly moderate candidate that wound up with the party’s presidential nomination. The Democrats will be peddling the same old Roosevelt-era tax-and-borrow-and-spend policies while complaining that the Republicans are peddling the same old borrow-and-spend policies, but it should be apparent eventually that this isn’t the same old Grand Old Party of the long-ago Bush days.

— Bud Norman

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