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A Blue Moment in a Red State

After a full week of counting and re-counting votes, the Kansas Republican party at last has a a gubernatorial nominee. The by-the-skin-of-his-teeth winner turns out to be Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and we expect he’s in for a tough general election.
Although a reliably Republican state in congressional and presidential elections, Kansas hasn’t rewarded either the Republicans or Democrats with a third consecutive term since the 1960s, when conservative Democrat Robert Docking won four straight two-year terms, and the past eight years of Republican rule haven’t gone so well. For seven of those years the governor was former Senator Sam Brownback, whose radical tax cut agenda required purges of establishment Republicans in some ugly primary fights and didn’t deliver the promised economic boom and enhanced revenues, and after he resigned to become something called Ambassador for Religious Freedom in the administration of President Donald Trump his Lieutenant Governor and accidental Gov. Jeff Colyer could do little to reverse the state’s fortunes in a year’s time, even though his fellow establishment Republicans had won a second round of ugly primary fights against the hard-liners and some common-sense fixes to the tax code were enacted.
Kobach further complicates the Republican’s problems. He only beat Colyer by a hundred votes or so, with about 60 percent of the party voted for another of the crowded field of candidates, and his audaciously far-right stands on various issues will be a hard sell to a state that’s lately reverting to its cautiously center-right character. Nationally-known for his obsessions with illegal immigration and voter fraud, Kobach won our votes in two races for Secretary of State with such common sense reforms as photo identification requirements for voting, but since his reelection many Kansans such as ourselves think he’s taken things a bit too far.
He was tabbed by Trump to head a federal commission to prove that more than three million illegal immigrant voters had robbed the president of his rightful win in the popular vote, but that went down in flames when both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state refused for both Democratic and Republican reasons to comply with the commission’s demands for their voter data, with even Kansas refusing on the basis of state law to comply with all of it. Some rather stringent voter registrations requirements that we’re not sure we could comply with were challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union, and when Kobach represented himself in the lawsuit he not only wound up on the losing side of the verdict but racked up thousands of dollars in contempt of court fines and much public ridicule in the process. Kobach has fully embraced the snarling Trump style of campaigning and credits the president’s endorsement for his victory, but more than 70 percent of Republican caucus-goers voted against that in ’16 and about 60 percent of Republican primary voters didn’t fall for it in ’18.
Longtime state legislator Laura Kelly won more than 50 percent of the Democratic party’s votes against a crowded field that included such formidable challengers as former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer and the folksy rural legislator Joshua Svaty, and we can’t imagine any Democrat in the state opting for Kobach. Democrats are only about 30 percent of the state, but that’s always a good start in any race, and our guess is that most of Kansas’ numerous independents are leaning Democratic about now, and that many of the state’s stubbornly independent Republicans are getting fed up with their party. Trump won the state’s six electoral votes by the usual Republican landslide, but he was running against the historically horrible Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and such a scandal-free and not-at-all-shrill centrist as Kelly is unlikely to inspire such widespread loathing in the Grand Old Party.
The wild card in the race is independent candidate Greg Orman, a rich businessman making his second electoral run in Kansas. Back in the state GOP’s anti-establshment fervor of ’14 longtime Sen. Pat Roberts narrowly escaped a primary challenge, so Orman ran an independent campaign to the right of Roberts, and the Democratic nominee was so lame that the party withdrew him from the ballot and hoped that Orman would at least remove a sitting Republican from the Senate, but he wound up losing by a lopsided margin and Roberts is still in office and at least resisting Trump’s stupid trade wars. This time around Orman is running on the argument that a two-party system of democracy is a rigged game that has brought the state to its knees, and that only a rich businessman can make Kansas great again, and he’s offering few specific plans.
This strikes us as a losing argument around here, but there’s no doubt some significant number of Kansans will fall for it, so it’s a question of whose voters it will attract. The answer, we dare say, is that the vast majority of Orman’s support will come from the Trump-endorsed Kobach’a column.
Kobach’s national notoriety will probably funnel plenty of out-of-state money to Kelly’s campaign coffers, too, and we expect she’ll spend that far-left money on some very centrist advertisements. We don’t expect Kansas’ nationally notorious mega-donor Charles Koch will make up much of the difference, given Koch’s libertarian views on immigration and genteel aversion to the snarling Trump style of campaigning, and the funding gap will be a problem in the expensive media markets up in those well-educated and well-off Kansas City suburbs that are typical of the places where the Republicans have been having a hard time lately.
November is a long time from now, but the days grow short when you reach September, as the old song says, and on this rainy August day we’re wishing Colyer had won. As things now stand, we might have to vote for a damn Democrat.

— Bud Norman

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Trump Takes a Pledge

The Republicans got some good news today when Donald Trump at long last signed a pledge not to run as an independent candidate for president if he is not the party’s nominee, in which case he would surely have handed the Democrats a winning plurality and another four years in the White House. Now the party’s main concern is making sure that Trump isn’t the nominee.
Trump’s pledge might yet prove as reliable as his many wedding vows, but at least any quixotic third-party campaign he could conceivably attempt will start as a broken promise. This will presumably drain some of his support away, perhaps even to the point that he doesn’t do any more damage than moderate Republican John Anderson’s independent bid did to Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory back in ’80, and although the current Republican field might be lacking in Ronald Reagans one is grateful for such small consolations. There’s other good news for the Republicans to grasp to, as well, what with all that bad news about enough Democrats signing on the that awful deal that gives Iran a nuclear bomb and $150 billion, the dismal decline in the stock market, the soaring murder rates of black Americans in the cities where the “Black Lives Matter” movement has held greatest sway, the manifold problems of illegal immigration that Trump has so cannily exploited, the growing public skepticism about the “global warming” alarmism that is driving Democratic politics, and cumulative effect of so many issues where the Democrats are opposed to clear majorities of public opinion should provide the party with such an opportunity that only such a extraordinary buffoon as Trump could miss the chance.
Even with Trump sitting atop the opinion polls about the Republican race, we still regard his chances as improbable, although we can’t say implausible, even though we’d like to say it was impossible. Currently the rest of the top three is comprised of Dr. Ben Carson, the former chief of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, and Carly Fiorina, one-time secretary at a small insurance company and former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, both of whom should fare better among any Republicans pining for an amateur politician. One can’t help noticing that Carson is black, and has a compelling up-fraom-the-ghetto-to-performing-brai-surgery story, and he’s obviously a more sincere contrastive and Christian than Trump. Fiorina also has a made-for-TV story to tell, she’s delightfully ferocious in interviews and debates, and is at least as solid as Trump in her conservative bona fides, so if the public truly is pining for its first woman president she’d be a much better choice than the one the Democrats seem to have settled on. Carson is soft-spoken and humble where Trump is loud and bombastic, Fiorina projects the same aura of hard-tacks competence that Trump aspires to and doesn’t need a rich father or cronyism to achieve it, and eventually the Republican primary voters and caucus-goers will notice that some of those politicians have been pretty good governors and senators.
Still, we can’t write off Trump. Not in a country where fellow pro-wrestling performer Jesse Ventura and “Terminator” star Arnold Schwarzenegger were elected governor, and where an erstwhile community organizer and undistinguished Illinois legislator and one-third term Senator was twice elected president, and where a movie about “Niggaz With Attitude” is the runaway hit of the year.

— Bud Norman

Kansas Lurks Back to Normalcy

The Kansas economy has lately been swelled by the expense accounts of big city newspaper reporters, as much of the national media have rushed to our usually overlooked state to cover its Senate race. There’s no wondering why there’s a national interest in the story, as it could wind up determining which party controls the Senate, and it provides some reason for the reporters to hope that it will  be the Democrats who somehow prevail, and it is a most intriguing tale. The latest developments are more hopeful to the Republicans, however, and even the most partisan presses seem to have noticed.
Ordinarily even the reporters in Wichita and Topeka wouldn’t get out of their newsrooms to cover a Senate race in Kansas, which hasn’t sent anything other than a Republican to Washington since that one time everyone lost their minds early in the New Deal and Dust Bowl days, but this is not an ordinary year. Long-time incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts has been around a long enough time to have found disfavor with the Republican party’s anti-incumbent mood, and he barely survived a challenge to a little known and under-funded and underwhelming neophyte with a Facebook scandal only because a couple of crank candidates split the majority of the party’s throw-the-bums-out vote. Roberts then went into a three-way general election adorned with the out-of-touch and out-of-state label stuck upon him in the primary, hoping that another split of the anti-Roberts vote would save him, but the Democrats went to court insisting that they shouldn’t be compelled to run a candidate just because their party had gone to the expensive trouble of nominating one, and it was suddenly plausible that a well-heeled and largely self-financed independent candidate who was running on an appealing platform of common sense solutions and bipartisanship would win. That the most reliably Republican state in the Union over the past century and a half might allow the Democrats to retain control of the Senate was a tantalizing possibility, and thus the influx of national media to Kansas.
What they’ve found, however, is an impressive all-out effort by the Republicans that casts doubt on the upset storyline. Local newscasts have been saturated with advertisements for Roberts, almost all of which make the essential point that a Republican loss could allow the Democrats to retain control of the Senate, complete with scary pictures of the wildly unpopular President Barack Obama. There are also radio ads that combat the unfortunately true charge from the primary that Roberts hasn’t had a legitimate Kansas residence for years by touting his Kansas birth and Marine service and twangy-gravelly voice and weather-beaten visage and generally conservative voting record to remind voters that he’s still a Kansas kind of guy. Our internet browsing keeps popping up ads from the National Rifle Association touting Robert’s support for Second Amendment rights, the spots running on the local right-wing talk radio stations sound tailored to the concerns of those staunch conservatives who might be tempted to stay at home rather than for a man whose lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is a mere 86 percent, and such anti-establishment heroes as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin have taken to the hustings to shore up the base. With the Democrats successfully suing in court to avoid the ignominy of a third place finish the anti-Roberts vote won’t be split, but that and the annoying minority of Kansas’ liberals full-throated support for the indendepent have made it easier to portray him as the de facto Democrat in a state where the Democrats are begging to be left of the ballot.
Meanwhile, independent Greg Orman’s campaign has seemed unready for both Roberts’ sudden aggressiveness and the inevitable scrutiny that falls upon a frontrunner even when he’s front-running against a Republican. At first he tried to dodge the question of whether he would caucus with the Democrats and potentially retain their control of the Senate, then said he’d join whichever side held a clear majority on his inauguration day, and is now trying out the line that it doesn’t much matter which party controls the Senate. He’s also dodged such obvious questions as whether he’d vote to repeal Obamacare, telling a random curious citizen at a small town parade that it’s an “interesting question,” and has otherwise been vague about what he considers a common sense and bipartisan solution on such issues as gun control and the XL Keystone Pipeline. He can’t deny his past campaign contributions to Obama and Democratic Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and other hated Democrats, or his past attempt to run for Senate as a Democrat, or the loud support he’s getting from that annoying minority of liberals, and in his rebuttal ads he’s been reduced to saying that Roberts’ criticism of the Obama agenda is “only half right” and that an equal portion of blame should be allotted to those who oppose that agenda. The argument is likely to fall flat with the vast majority of Kansas who express disapproval of Obama, even if it resonates with those confounded low-information voters who don’t stop to think about such claims,  and if Orman has some third way that both parties will follow toward a golden age, he doesn’t explain it in these 30-second spots.
There’s still plenty of time left for an October surprise, and if it comes it will be during a most peculiar election season, but we sense that Kansas is turning back to its traditional Republican form.

— Bud Norman

Insanity in the Heartland

Politics here in Kansas is now so screwy that the Democrats are in court pleading they shouldn’t be forced to field a candidate for Senate and the Republican nominee is lagging in the polls. The explanation for this otherwise inexplicable turn of events is a self-described “independent” candidate offering the usual pablum about bipartisanship and practical solutions, an entrenched Republican incumbent who barely survived a primary challenge by a scandal-tainted neophyte because he’s considered too bipartisan and practical by the party’s base, and the gullibility of the average voter.
The self-described independent was once registered as a Democrat, once ran for the Senate as a Democrat, is now very careful not to deny that he will caucus with the Democrats, and to the carefully attuned ear he still sounds a lot like a Democrat, but it remains to be seen if a majority of this reliably Republican state will reach the obvious conclusion that he is a Democrat. On Thursday he came out for the Democrats’ proposal to re-write the First Amendment to restrict criticism of the Democratic Party, which is about as Democratic a policy as one can endorse, but even that might not make the necessary impression on those Kansans distracted by the upcoming basketball season.
One can only hope that the average Kansan, who is as least as apt to exercise his First Amendment rights as the citizen of any other state, will notice that putative independent Greg Orman, usually described in the Kansas press as a wealthy businessman from Johnson County, is on the record with his support of the odious amendment the to the constitution recently proposed by the Democrats that would allow for further federal regulation of spending on political speech. The amendment is touted as an antidote merely to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which reasonably found that that prior restraint of an anti-Hillary Clinton movie was a gross violation of the the First Amendment, but its inevitable result is a regulatory regime that will restrict conservative opinions while allowing the liberal riposte. Orman’s endorsement of this outrage should convince any sensible Kansan of his Democratic tendencies, but we anxiously await the verdict on how many of our fellow Kansans are sensible.
That entrenched Republican incumbent, Sen. Pat Roberts, has an 86 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, which has spiked during the age of the locally unpopular President Barack Obama, and although that heretical 14 percent has alienated the party’s conservative base we hope they’ll notice that he’s been a stalwart defender of free speech. That Citiziens United decision involved money from the demonized Koch Brothers, who are a mainstay of the Kansas economy and have been forthrightly defended by Roberts on the Senate floor, and Roberts has been quite admirable in his defense of the decision of the principle of letting even the most targeted people express their opinions in the the public square.
Thus far the national Republican party seems aware of the danger that such a usually reliable state is in play, and we’re hopeful that Roberts will have the resources to make his convincing case to the people of his state. The state’s media won’t be much help, inclined as it is to present that radical constitutional amendment as an old-fashioned sunshine law that will reveal the nefarious money-bags greasing the system, but given the mood of the state we are hopeful that Orman will eventually be regarded as another Democrat and meet the usual Democrats’ fate. It’s a tricky race to handicap, though, and could go either way.
Kansas’ prognosticators seem split on how it might turn out. One school of thought holds that forcing the Democrats onto the ballot will split the anti-incumbent vote, while another posits that without an official Democratic candidate Ogman will be regarded as the de facto Democrat and suffer accordingly. Roberts’ reputation as a get-along Republican will cost him a few votes from the party faithful, but might pick up a few among those who buy into Orman’s happy talk about bipartisanship. We’ll be keeping our fingers cross that the party faithful recognize a censorious Democrat when they see one, that those with fantastical hopes of bipartisanship won’t mind Roberts’ occasional offenses against Republican orthodoxy, and that Kansas of all places doesn’t screw up the Republicans’ hopes of taking the Senate.

— Bud Norman