The Politics Around Here

Kansas holds a primary one week from today, and the state is already awash in politics. Yard signs are proliferating, the mailbox is full of fliers, the pitchmen for identity theft protection agencies and the guy from the Good Feet Store have been chased off the talk radio airwaves by campaign commercials, and some of the races are intriguingly nasty.
All of the action around here is on the Republican side, as usual. The state’s beleaguered Democrats always pick their candidates well in advance of the primary at some committee meeting or another, where a strange cabal of airplane plant union bosses and political science professors and some die-hard lefty activists left over from the good old Prairie Populist days take care not to choose anyone who might have a chance in the long-awaited favorable election cycle. There’s some faint hope of knocking off incumbent Governor Sam Brownback, a budget-cutting anti-abortion stalwart who is hated by the state’s Democrats with a red-hot fervor usually reserved for the likes of Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin, but the supposedly mainstream candidate they’ve come up with is not only a Democrat but also from Lawrence and will have a hell of a time explaining those embarrassing facts to the rest of the thoroughly Republican and decidedly non-college town state. Meanwhile, all the Republican races are being hotly contested between the go-along-to-get-along crowd and the tar-feather-and-pitchforks folks.
Even. Sen Pat Roberts, who has been winning elections in the state since it joined the Union just prior to the Civil War, has lately been forced to resort to some strenuously negative advertising to stave off a primary challenge by Kansas City-area radiologist and political neophyte Dr. Milton Wolf. Wolf’s shoestring campaign got off to a good start with free publicity about his distant family relation to President Barack Obama and scathing commentary on everything Obama has done, and picked up further free steam from media reports that Roberts hasn’t actually lived in the state for years, but was derailed through the summer by news accounts of how the kindly doctor had posted his patients’ x-rays on his Facebook page with darkly humorous commentary. Lately one of those anti-establishment Republican groups have taken to the airwaves with a compelling critique of all the debt and failed grand bargains that Roberts has voted for after so many decades of practical politics, and a prominent national talk radio host has championed Wolf’s cause, but Wolf’s name recognition remains low and he’s yet to make the case for himself. Wolf’s challenge is serious enough that Roberts is unaccustomedly spending campaign money on a primary, and we’re still undecided how we’ll cast our own vote, but our sense is that Roberts will survive and suffer little damage in what should be an easy general election campaign against whoever it is that the Democrats have already offered up as a human sacrifice.
The weakness of Wolf’s campaign should be taken into consideration when reading the inevitable stories about the establishment-versus-insurgents rift within the Republican, but other races indicate where the rift is actually occurring.
Here in the Fourth Congressional, which includes relatively densely-populated Wichita and the rest of relatively sparsely populated south-central Kansas, an incumbent who is still an impeccably insurgent sort even after two terms is being challenged his predecessor from the Bush-era of the Republican establishment. Former Rep. Todd Tiahrt always ran as a rock-ribbed Republican, and voted as one often enough to thrice win re-election, but to distinguish himself against his post-Tea Party opponent and explain his past spending votes he’s made an old-fashioned pitch to bring home the earmarked pork to the district in general and its key aviation industries in particular, with his ads making special mention of an “aviation zone” project that his opponent declined to fund. Rep. Mike Pompeo, the incumbent, has responded with spots arguing that the aviation industry needs to be freed from burdensome regulation rather than subsidized, touting his own proposed legislation to achieve that, and noting he is a successful aviation entrepreneur backed by all the titans of the local industry. Tiahrt still enjoys the loyalty of many of the substantial number of anti-abortion voters in the district, who played a key role in his initial upset victory and were always rewarded with his undying loyalty, but Pompeo’s voting record on abortion issues has not been faulted by any of the anti-abortion scorekeepers, and the Pompeo campaign has also been airing ads with religious right hero and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee extolling the incumbent’s solid family values. We’re solidly for Pompeo, partly because the top-of-his-class West Point grad and high tech business success strikes us as a far more intelligent fellow, but also because we’re more worried about paying off the debt than bringing home the bacon. Despite some recent tightening in the polls we’re still expecting most of the Republican voters in these parts will reach the same conclusion.
There’s no telling what stories the national media will tell about the Fourth District race, but at least they won’t embarrassed by any attention paid to Sedgwick County’s Fourth District Commission race. The battle between incumbent Commissioner Richard Ranzau and longtime state Sen. Carolyn McGinn is our favorite political pastime of the the summer, much as the Wichita Wingnuts’ campaign in the Double-A American Association is our current sports passion, and we like to think that both of these seemingly local concerns potentially portend the future of the United States of America. Any national media in search of a more rock-ribbed Tea Party insurgent anti-establishmentarian will find no one more closely resembling their favorite stereotypes than Ranzau, who has become locally famous by County Commission standards for voting “no” against almost everything. He’ll spend a Sedgwick Countian’s hard-earned tax money on water and roads and locking up the roustabouts and all of the few other things than even a Republican originalist such as Abraham Lincoln would have sanctioned a county commission doing, but when it comes to the rest of the hogwash that the do-gooders and the teachers’ unions cook up he’s been on the losing end of a lot of four-to-one or three-to-two votes. So principled is Ranzau in his stinginess that he has even voted against programs that would be paid for entirely by federal funds, a response to the nation’s $17 trillion dollar debt that the local media, machine Democrats, and even the more of Chamber of Commerce-y sorts of Republicans regard as utter madness. Ranzau could happily dine in the hippest bistros of San Francisco or New York or anywhere else outside Sedgwick County in complete anonymity, although the other customers would probably notice something suspiciously Sedgwick County Republican about his ill-fitting brown jacket, but among the polite opinion in Riverside and downtown and the other semi-fashionable portions of the Fourth District he’s as reviled as a Koch brother.
Running against Ranzaus and his outrages is McGinn, an exemplar of the more respectable sort of Republicanism that has prevailed in Kansas pretty much since the Reconstruction era. She can legitimately claim a fairly conservative voting record on spending in her ads, in which she proudly declares “I demand accountability,” but she also boasts of having the “courage” to vote for “investments” in the future of the county. We’ve covered enough economic-development conferences and hearings and bill-signings to recognize the reference to the same old eco-devo boondoggles that have become such an entrenched part of federal and state and county and local government it takes little courage to vote for them, so we’re inclined to to Ranzau’s and Pompeo’s preference for lower taxes and fewer regulations. McGinn seems a fine woman, conservative enough by the standards that prevailed through most of our lives in the Republican Party, and we don’t worry that Sedgwick County will perish by rule, but we’d like to see Ranzau’s underfunded re-election bid prevail. We enjoy taunting our more polite neighbors about him, much as we enjoy taunting them with our admiration for the Koch brothers, and would like the think the rest of the Republican party is just as serious as he’s been about the government’s proper roles..

— Bud Norman

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