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The Craziness in Kansas

The politics in Kansas are quite crazy at the moment, even by the prevailing national and global standards of political craziness.
More than a day after the primary polls closed on Tuesday we still don’t know who the Republican gubernatorial nominee is, although Secretary of State Kris Kobach holds a lead of fewer than 200 votes over serving Gov. Jeff Colyer in the initial count. Such a slim margin of victory requires a recount or two, which for now will be overseen by Secretary of State Kobach, which has raised some concerns with Colyer and his supporters, and it will be interesting to see how that works out.
Whichever candidate wins, we do at least know that he’ll be facing longtime state legislator Laura Kelly as the Democratic nominee in the general election, and in this cray year in Kansas we expect she’ll be formidable opponent. President Donald Trump won Kansas’ electoral votes by the usual 30 point rout, but that’s only because running against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, as he was a distant third in the Republican caucus and his protectionist policies aren’t playing well here and neither is his rich tough guy from New York shtick. Kelly is scandal-free so far as we can tell, talks knowingly of technical adjustments to state policies rather than radical transformations, is plain-faced and plain-spoken in a reassuringly Kansas way, and either Republican will have a hard time making her out to be nearly so scary as that awful Clinton woman.
Meanwhile, the Democrats went crazy in a very un-Kansas way up in the Third Congressional District, where they chose a lesbian Native American and former mixed martial arts fighter named Sharice Davids as their candidate. We have nothing against lesbians or Native Americans, but we draw the line at mixed martial arts, and it objectively strikes us bad politics even by the Kansas Democratic party’s sorry standards. The Third is morstly comprised of largely black and poor Wyandotte County and the predominantly wealthy and white Kansas City suburbs of Johnson and Miami counties, the sort of district that’s been losing Republican support in all the special elections since Trump got elected, but it’s still Kansas, for crying out loud, and we can only bear so much intersectionality of gender identity politics around here.
The Democrats might have blown a ripe opportunity to flip another suburban Republican seat in the Third, but in the Second Congressional District they took the more characteristically Kansan cautious choice. Their nominee, Paul Davis, is a straight white male and a longtime legislator and former gubernatorial party nominee who won the district in his bid, and he easily defeated the candidate that self-described socialists Vermont Sen. Bernie Sander and New York’s Democratic congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-both campaigned for. and he’s always played well in a district that includes the crazy college town of Lawrence and well as the government-infested state capital of Topeka.
Current Rep. Lynn Jenkins announced months ago that she wouldn’t be seeking re-election in exactly the sort of prosperous and well-educated district that Republicans have been losing since Trump’s election, but the Republicans came up with a formidable challenger of their, at least as far as we can tell from down here. He’s an Army veteran, and he beat out two other Army veterans, one of them a retired law enforcement officer, and he seems the polite and well-mannered sort of suburban who would never think of grabbing a woman by her wherever. By the time all the outside money pours into what will surely be a “toss up” race they’ll be both seen as the slimiest individuals you’ve ever laid eyes, but until then we’re hoping for a nice clean fight.
Down here in the middle of Wichita and the surrounding bounty of the Fourth Congressional District things are no crazier than usual. The Republicans re-nominated Rep. Ron Estes, who easily withstood a challenge from Ron Estes, which is not one of the sloppy mistypings we occasional commit. Turns out there’s another Ron Estes in the Fourth, and no one knows if it was a Democratic dirty trick or just for personal yucks, but he paid the nominal filing fee and got on the ballot. The Secretary of State’s office decreed that the incumbent Estes would be identified as Rep. Ron Estes, while the challenger would lack the honorific and have a middle initial added, which made things pretty clear, so it’s worth noting that the other Ron Estes got 18.6 percent of the vote.
The Democrats re-nominated attorney James Thompson, who came within seven points of beating Estes in the special election that followed Rep. Mike Pompeo’s appointment to head the Central Intelligence. A seven point would be shameful for a Democrat in a lot of districts, but around here it was a 23-point improvement on the usual butt-whippings, and by a sliver-sized margin he actually won Sedgwick County, which is mainly urban and ethnically and socio-economically diverse yet instinctively conservative Wichita, and the crazy Democrats we run into around here never give up hope that we’ll soon be a socialist paradise.
Thompson came within shouting distance in that special election partly because the Republicans were contented and the Democrats riled up by Trump’s victory, and Thompson’s ads featured semi-automatic rifles and talk of his military record and absolutely nothing that could be considered scarily far-left. This time around he let Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez come and campaign for him, which hasn’t impressed our far-left Democratic friends has our more seasoned and pragmatic Democratic friends slapping their foreheads. Estes is just another Ron Estes, and certainly can’t compare to the shooting star of his successor, who is now Secretary of State and plotting every move according to presidential ambitions, but we expect the Fourth won’t flip anytime soon.
Meanwhile, and as usual, everything seems so serenely sane out there beyond the city in the vast and sprawling First Congressional District of Kansas. If you’re a fellow urbanite who longs for wide open spaces, with gently rolling hills of native grasses and lush crops unmarred by strip malls and modern architecture, and Frank Capra-esque small towns full of kind hearts and gentle people, you can still find it in the First. The district encompasses all of harsh and mostly empty western Kanand bumps up against the other districts to the east. The district includes some rough towns that never got over their old west ways, and the many southeast Asians and northern Africans they’ve brought into man the meatpacking plants that largely sustain the district’s economy out west has introduced some uncomfortable racial and socio-economic diversity to once lily-white communities, but they seem to manage their business well enough.
The Republican renominated incumbent Rep. Roger Marshall, and although the Democrats didn’t bother to hold a primary his past opponent Alan LaPolice will be on the ballot as an independent,so it’s pretty much a done deal that Marshal will win a second term. He won his first term by knocking off Republican incumbent Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a burn-it-down anti-establishment who’d been elected in the dark days of President Barack Obama and the Tea Party fervor of the time. When Huelskamp’s never back-down and punch-back-tens-times-as-hard style got Kansas kicked off the House Agriculture committee for the first time ever and wound up delaying a farm bill and it’s much needed-subsidy checks over some fiscal principle the First regained its sanity and chose the more mild-manner Marshall, who is more in line with Bob Dole and all the other future Senators and establishment types the First has sent to higher office, and so far they seem to like him.
Things might be just as crazy as in your neck of the political woods, and if so we wish you well. If it works out for the worse, we hope you have a nearby safe space to beat a hasty retreat.

— Bud Norman

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A Swell Party in Kansas

Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas’ Fourth Congressional District threw a swell party Tuesday night. The event was held at the fashionably old-fashioned Candle Club over on the east side, where a private club status left over from the pre-liquor-by-the-drink days ordinarily allows for smoking and enhances a slightly ’60s-era Vegas atmosphere enhanced by painted portraits of all the prominent Rat Pack members, although it was more brightly lit and smoke-free than usual and a portrait of Pompeo had been added to the pantheon of Frank, Dean, and Sammy, and the free food was quite delicious and so was the free beer that a waitress friend of ours provided. Some old friends were in attendance, including a couple of the other waitresses and the newspaper reporter and photographer who were there on the job, and the convivial atmosphere was further enlivened by the numbers scrolling along the bottom of the several big screen televisions that showed Pompeo’s comfortable victory in his contested primary.
Pompeo’s victory pleased us, to the point that we donned one of the oversized “I Like Mike” campaign buttons that were being passed around, and almost all of the numbers that were scrolling across the bottom of those big-screen televisions were heartening. At least here in Kansas, the Republican Party seems in fighting form. The pre-ordained Democratic candidates will head into the general election unsullied by any of the mud that was slung in the Republican primary races, almost all of which were hotly contested, but they’ll face a Republican slate that has been distilled to its conservative essence and is ready to make its convincing case to a Republican state that is hopping mad about Democratic policies.
All the national media attention will be paid to the Senate race, where entrenched establishment incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts survived a challenge from one of those under-funded amateur “tea party” insurgents, but even that surprisingly close call demonstrates the appropriately angry mood of the state’s Republicans. After 47 years of representing Kansas in Washington Roberts won less than 50 percent of his party’s vote, and if not for a couple of crank candidates who split the anti-incumbent vote with Dr. Milton Wolf, a Kansas City-area radiologist best known for posting his patients’ x-rays on his Facebook page with sarcastic comments, the upset would have been the national political story of the day. We expect that a duly chastened Roberts will campaign on the full-throated conservatism that he’s shrewdly advocated the past few years, and that even the disappointed Republicans will prefer him to the Democratic alternative.
Some national attention will also be paid to a couple of the state’s Congressional races, where the usual storyline was inverted and incumbents were the radical “tea party” insurgent types while the challengers were more establishmentarian. Here in the Fourth District, to which we mistakenly included Hutchinson in a previous post, an error due to re-districting that was politely pointed out to us by a well-informed friend at the Candle Club, Pompeo and his principled opposition to pork barrel spending and publicly funded but privately profitable economic schemes was challenged by his predecessor, Todd Tiahrt, who promised to bring home the bacon the way he did back in the good old days George W. Bush’s spending spree. Tiahrt’s pitch included promises aplenty about reviving Wichita’s beleaguered airplane industry, but it’s nice to note that Pompeo’s past success as an aviation entrepreneur and his advocacy of de-regulation and lower taxes proved more persuasive to a solid majority of the district’s Republicans.
Over in the First District, which covers that great big empty space west of Wichita all the way to the Colorado border and then snakes northeast all way to to the edge of Topeka, and which we feel obligated to add also includes the very fine town of Hutchinson, an even more radical “tea party” insurgent type survived a challenge from an even more establishment-minded challenger. Rep. Tim Huelskamp became a talk radio sensation and a national hero to the radical insurgent “tea party” types with his denunciations of the Republican House leadership’s timidity in the government shutdown and other efforts to rebuff President Barack Obama, but the House leadership responded by stripping him of his seat on the Agriculture Committee and thus provided an opening to farmer and former teacher Alan LaPolice, who promised a more polite sort of politics. Huelskamp’s stubbornness on the obligatory Farm Bill, which the Democrats always turn into a welfare bill, as well as his admirable opposition to the ethanol subsidies that enrich many western Kansas farmers, made for a very competitive race. That the First District preferred the more impolite and principled candidate makes us all the more eager to take another drive through that beautifully empty space west of Wichita.
There will also be some gleeful speculation by the national media about the primary victory of Gov. Sam Brownback, who won his party’s nomination but lost nearly a fourth of its votes to a little-known and under-funded challenger. Democrats everywhere, but especially here, hate Brownback with the sort of red-hot passion once reserved for the likes of Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin, so they’ll no doubt predict an upset in the general election, but we think they misread the result. When we cast our votes over at the local Gloria Dei Lutheran Church we ran into an old friend we know to be stark raving liberal, and when we expressed our surprise that she had bothered to show up for the uncontested Democratic races she said that she had switched parties in time to vote to the more “moderate” Republicans, and when we headed home we found a Facebook posting by another Democratic friend gloating how he had switched in order to cast a vote against the hated Brownback, and given the lack of any reason to vote in the Democratic primary we suspect that many others like them contributed to the relatively close count. Brownback will need a good campaign to win, but he knows how to do that and the pre-ordained liberal Democrat from the college town of Lawrence doesn’t look all that intimidating.
We left what turned out to be Pompeo’s victory party before the big speech, as the National Baseball Congress’ annual semi-pro world championship tournament over at the westside’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium beckoned, but since it was almost on the way we stopped at Kirby’s Beer Store to check on the numbers scrolling at the bottom of the bar’s small television. Kirby’s is a hipster bar rife with Democrats, and one of our favorites, a delightfully dissolute lawyer whose professional fortunes are tied to the party, was watching with dismay. He was surprised by Pompeo’s victory, due to his outdated belief that Tiahrt’s popularity with the local anti-abortion activists would carry the day, and even expressed amazement that nationally-known anti-illegal-immigration stalwart Kris Kobach had cruised to re-nomination as Secretary of State, even though the voter identification laws that he championed are hugely popular here and everywhere else. He expressed the predictable optimism about knocking off Brownback, although he sounded somewhat hesitant, and admitted that Roberts and the rest were likely to cruise to re-election. He also said he hadn’t dared to switch parties to vote in the primary, if only for professional reasons, and we thanked him heartily and promised to forever return the favor.
The national media will pay no mind whatsoever to Sedgwick County’s Fourth District Commission race, but forgive our local rooting interest and allow us to note that Richard Ranzau survived a well-funded challenge from oh-so-moderate State Sen. Carolyn McGinn. Ranzau is locally notorious for voting against any of those Chamber of Commerce-inspired “eco deco” deals that promise jobs and prosperity and a chicken in every pot, even when the feds are picking up the tab, and we’re delighted that a slim majority of our neighboring Republicans have his back. He’ll face a tough race in the general election against the Democrats’ pre-ordained Melody McCray-Miller, the heiress to a local black political dynasty that has the undying loyalty of a large slice of the districts as well as a winning personality that makes her formidable in the paler portions of the district, but we also like his chances in November. There’s no telling what the rest of the country is thinking, but here in the county district and the congressional district and the state at large the Republican party seems more or less on the right track.

— Bud Norman