The Establishment Strikes Back

Kansas seems to have reverted to its old respectable Republicanism on Tuesday, for better or worse, and the rest of the country would do well to take note. Over the years such ideas as abolition and prohibition and the most noisome sorts of populism have spread out in all directions from this state, and something similar might once again be afoot.
The big story out of the Kansas primary was the First Congressional District race between incumbent Rep. Tim Huelskamp and challenger Dr. Roger Marshall, which actually did get a lot of national attention, especially from the conservative media, as it provided an interesting plot twist in the popular press narrative about the ongoing Republican civil war. Huelskamp was one of those fire-breathing conservatives who brashly challenged the “establishment” and won, while Marshall proudly positioned himself as a more traditional type of Republican. What turned out to be a blow-out win by Marshall, therefore, is being headlined around the country as a win for House Speaker Paul Ryan and whatever’s left that of that erstwhile “establishment.”
All politics really is local, though, as the old cliche would have it, and of course it’s always too complicated to fit into a headline. So far as we could glean from what’s left of the Kansas press and all those attack ads that were blasting out of the Wichita radio stations and into the nearby First District, and based on our long experience of Kansas politics, the big issue in the race was that Huelskamp was so darned fire-breathing in his anti-“establishment” stance that he wound up getting kicked off the Agriculture Committee and voting against a pork-laden Farm Bill that was considered quite generous to the farmers and ranchers who are pretty much the entirety of the First District’s economy. The challenger was a handsome and polished obstetrician who endeared himself to the formidable anti-anortion vote by delivering a large share of the few babies being in born in the aging district, and he had the financial backing of not only the Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas Livestock Association but also some well-heeled outsiders with a rooting interest in defeating the fire-breathers. Huelskamp had his own anti-abortion credentials as the adoptive father of two African children, and a pristine voting record on the issue to go along with it, and he had the backing of the Wichita-based and national liberal bogeymen Koch brothers and some shrewd political operators from the insurgent side, but the gruff personality and ideological purity that once endeared him to the “tea party” voters of a few election cycles ago didn’t contrast well with the smoother Marshall and had been a bit grating since he got the First District kicked off the Agriculture Committee for the first ever.
Huelskamp had been an outspoken supporter of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’ presidential campaign and never got around to endorsing Republican nominee Donald Trump, who was somewhat more enthusiastically supported by Marshall, which of course complicates that whole Trump versus Ryan version of the insurgents versus the “establishment” narrative. Our guess is that neither Trump nor Ryan had much to do with the race, as neither man in is very popular in Kansas, and those subsidies in that Farm Bill were of far greater local importance. Trump came in a desultory second place finish in the Kansas caucus, and that ag station out of far west Kansas that we listen to during the sunny days when its signal reaches our car radio doesn’t seem to mind his stand on borders and Muslims and all that but does fret how his protectionist trade talk is going to affect wheat exports, and it doesn’t play well here in the aviation-dominated Fourth District, either, but neither do Kansans care much for the likes of Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and all their corrupt wheeling-and-dealing that doesn’t even wheel or deal any meaningful pork to our state.
We note that Trump is withholding his endorsement from Ryan in his own primary race against a more fire-breathing “anti-establishment,” even though Ryan has offered a most tepid and frequently apologetic endorsement of Trump, but all politics is once again local and all reports indicate that in Ryan’s locality they’re quite happy to have a Speaker of the House representing their district’s interests, so given Trump’s poor primary showing in that state we expect that the headlines will succinctly state a clear-cut win for Ryan in that personal battle. Although it remains to be how the larger battle between Trumpism and Ryanism plays out, we expect that Republicans and all sorts of human beings will continue to vote in their perceived self-interest.
Interesting, then, that Kansas seems to perceive that a more respectable and less fire-breathing sort of Republicans is in its self-interest. Across town a friend of ours who’s also a fire-breathing sort lost his County Commission seat to a more polished fellow who promised to be just slightly less fire-breathing and more amenable to federal largesse, and we think it might have had something to do with the incumbent’s widely-publicized speech against radical Islamist terrorism that made sense to us but was not at all carefully worded and really didn’t have anything to do with anything before the Sedgwick County Commission, and it seems in keeping with a local weariness about politics. The state has been pursuing a rather radical tax-and-budget-cutting agenda ever since the fire-breathing Sam Brownback was elected governor, then won a fire-breathing legislature that ousted some long entrenched respectable sorts, and the liberals have been shrieking about it, and the results have thus far been mixed and the national media have gleefully made hay of that, and both the high church and the low church Christians are embarrassed by the ugliness of the politics of the moment, and we sense a certain nostalgia for a more polite era.
Down on the south side of town another friend of ours, this one a crazy-assed tax-and-spend nanny-state liberal, lost a Democratic primary for a state house seat. He used to be a local television reporter until he accidentally let loose with a profanity on the air, which is likely the reason he lost in race that drew only a few hundred voters, so even the Democrats, even on the south side, seem to be pining for some sort of respectability. This could be a trend.

— Bud Norman

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

How to Ruin a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy

One of the most prominent conservative talk radio hosts spent most of Wednesday’s broadcast railing at full volume against the Republican Party’s senatorial nominee in Kentucky. This does not bode well for the GOP’s otherwise excellent chances of winning a Senate majority in the upcoming mid-term elections.
The host did not go so far as to endorse the Democratic nominee, but neither did he offer any criticisms of her mostly liberal platform or employ any of his characteristic schoolyard taunts against her. On the whole, she had to be pleased with the broadcast. Early polling suggests the race will be close, with the Republicans needing a strong turnout to prevail, and having a popular voice of the right shreiking against their candidate can only help the Democrats.
Prior to Tuesday’s primary we would have had some sympathy for the host’s fulminations against Republican Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell. He scores a solid 90 percent on the American Conservative Union’s usually reliable rating of right-winginess, and his position as the Republican┬áSenate leader suggests he has the respect of the party’s most highly elected officials, but that heretical 10 percent includes some rather egregious transgressions and the party’s pooh-bahs have too often proved timid in the fight against Democratic craziness, so we welcomed the intra-party challenge by the more rock-ribbed investment fund manager Matt Bevin and wished him well in the effort. After Bevin lost by a solid margin of 60-to-40, however, we’d rather that conservatism’s focus is now on the race between McConnell and Democratic nominee Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Call us squishy establishment country club RINOs if you want, but we’ll take the Republican Senate leader with the 90 percent ACU rating over any Democrat that even a state such as Kentucky might come up with. Grimes has been running as a moderate, and is shrewd enough to always mention her support for the embattled coal industry when distancing herself from President Barack Obama, but she doesn’t pretend to be as conservative as McConnell. She enjoys the enthusiastic support of Bill and Hillary Clinton, commentators at the far-left Daily Kos site embrace her as “the best we can get,” and Democratic party discipline is formidable enough that she’s certain to wind up ever further left once in office. For all his many failings, and for all the infuriation they caused to conservative sensibilities, McConnell is clearly preferable to Grimes.
We’ll also take respectful note of the indisputable fact that a clear majority of Kentucky Republicans, who were better able to observe the primary race than that radio host or us, preferred McConnell to Bevin. This might have been due largely to the fund-raising advantage that McConnell enjoyed as Senate minority leader, even if Bevin did have contributions pouring in from disgruntled conservatives around the country, but it also seems due at least in part to some embarrassing missteps by Bevin. The unavoidable problem with breath-of-fresh-air outsiders is that by definition they are not seasoned political professionals, and Bevin was often amateurish in the worst sense of the word. His reasonable arguments against McConnell’s vote for the Troubled Assets Relief Program that bailed out the big banks in the first days of the Great Recession was undermined by the revelation that he’d supported it back in his investment fund managing days, he was forced to apologize for a speech at a pro-cockfighting rally, and he couldn’t woo Tea Party darling Sen. Rand Paul or other prominent Kentucky conservatives to his cause. Such missteps and the fund-raising disadvantage suggested he would have been less likely to beat Grimes and her well-oiled political machine, so perhaps that majority of Kentucky Republicans who voted for McConnnell wasn’t entirely comprised of squishy establishment country club RINOs or just plain rubes easily duped by high-priced advertising.
The folks at the Senate Conservatives Fund that largely bankrolled Bevin’s insurgency were quick to endorse McConnell after the results came in, even if the candidate and his talk radio supporters have been less gracious in defeat, so there is hope the party can unify to defeat the far more liberal candidate and bolster the party’s chances to win the Senate and more effectively block whatever foolishness the Democrats had planned for the last two years of the Obama administration. It won’t be the Congress of our fondest conservative dreams, alas, but it would be markedly better than the Reid-Pelosi Congress of our worst nightmares.
Unity requires compromise on both sides of the Republicans’ internecine squabbles, of course. We’d prefer that House Speaker John Boehner and other party big wigs must cease their schoolyard taunts against the party’s more conservative and assertive ranks, and would be happy to see a Republican House and Senate purge from the leadership ranks even if the Republican voters in their districts decline to do so, but are willing to offer our support so long as they do. The “tea party” has suffered many bitter defeats this primary season, but its core principles of limited government and low taxes and individual liberty remains essential arguments even for the most “establishment” Republicans. Those “tea party” candidates that do pick up the occasional win should get the full support of t, but it’s he big donors and party professionals, a fair trade for the votes of those disgruntled conservatives who grumpily trudge to the polls for the likes of McConnell if only to keep the likes of Grimes out of Washington, and let any lingering arguments can be settled by the majority caucuses in both houses of Congress.
With the public belatedly wising up to the incompetence and wrong-headedness of the Obama administration, on everything from the rapidly deteriorating foreign affairs to the still-sputtering economy to all those scandals of bureaucratic bumbling that keep popping up, it will be hard for the Democrats to make a winning argument no matter how much money the unions pump in or how many inches of attacks the press write. The Republicans will be hard-pressed to blow it, but some of them seem determined to pull it off.

— Bud Norman