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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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The Sunflower State’s Momentarily Embarrassing Moment in the Sun

The national media usually pay no attention to what’s going on in Kansas, which is fine by most Kansans, but they have taken notice of the state’s recent budget problems. Our state government’s revenue collections are once again short of projections, this time around by $350 million or so, and although the sum must seem quaint to a New York or Washington newspaper editor they can’t resist the angle of a cautionary tale about Republicans and their crazy economic schemes out here on the prairie.
There’s no denying the angle has some validity, and the hook for the latest stories is that even the Republican-dominated legislature came up just three votes short of overriding a Republican governor’s veto of tax hike bill, which is the sort of internecine Republican squabbling that always draws national media to even the most remote portions of the country. Although it pains our old-fashioned Kansas Republican souls to admit, there’s also no denying that all that tax-cutting that started about six years ago has not yet kept all the extravagant promises that were made. Even after six years there’s still a plausible argument to be made for patience, and the dismal science of economics cannot prove for certain that higher taxes would have proved a boon to the Kansas economy, and we can think of some tax-and-spend states that also have newsworthy budget problems, but for now there’s no denying the $350 million shortfall or any of the fun the press is having with it.
The tax cuts are the creation of our ultra-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who of course has long been hated by Democrats everywhere since his days in the United States Senate for his unapologetic anti-abortion and pro-free market beliefs. Although he has a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University’s world-class agricultural economics department and a law degree from the University of Kansas and is married into the family that owned the newspaper chain that owned The Topeka Capitol-Journal and served in the United States Senate and has been in politics since he became national president of the Future Farmers of America and the KSU student council, Brownback is still considered an anti-establishment type, so he’s also been a controversial figure even within his own party. Starting with all those high-minded New England abolitionists who poured into the state for the Bleeding Kansas battles that presaged the Civil War, the Kansas Republican Party has always been the establishment around here and long fended off the scruffier sorts of populists. Even with the help of the Emporia Gazette’s great William Allen White they had to resort to firearms to expel the Prairie Populists who gained a brief majority in the statehouse on a program of nationalizing everything and coining endless free silver and all sorts of other craziness, and they only kept the notorious quack and shrewd showman “Doc” Brinkley from becoming governor by not counting all the misspelled or imprecise write-in votes that were cast, but for the most part they’ve kept a steady course down the middle of the road over the many years, and at first they balked at Brownback’s admittedly radical fiscal policies.
Despite the intra-party resisters and their unified allies among the Democratic minority Brownback got most of what he wanted, and then he egged on the anti-establishment sentiment that was taking hold among Republicans in every state, and saw many of his longterm Republican adversaries ousted from office by more hard-core primary challengers, and then he got the rest of it. It was all very acrimonious and much mud was slung and it was not at all the sort of thing that Kansas Republicans like, and the Democrats everywhere greatly enjoyed it until the saw which side had won, and of course it didn’t end there. With like-minded Republicans firmly in control of both sides of the capitol building Brownback surely knew he would be due all the credit or blame that might accrue in the aftermath of his policies, and at the moment that’s a $350 million shortfall.
The notion that lower taxes are more conducive to economic activity than higher taxes has long been generally accepted by all sorts of Republicans, from the country clubs to the union halls, and although you might not find it in Kansas at the moment there is plenty of evidence to support that notion. The doubling of federal revenues that followed Reagan’s admittedly radical tax cuts is one example, and despite our doubts about this Trump fellow he might yet provide more proof. We can hardly blame those back east newspapers focusing their attention on Kansas, and we’ll give them some credit for acknowledging deep into their stories that it’s all very complicated. There are any number of reasons why the Kansas economy hasn’t outpaced even the sluggish growth of the nation at large over the past six years, many of which can plausibly be blamed on the policies of the D.C. Democrats and the eight years of Democratic governors who preceded Brownback, one of whom was that Kathleen Sibelius woman who got kicked out of the Obama administration for bungling the the Obamacare rollout, and the dismal science of economics being what it is there’s always that very real possibility things could have been worse.
There’s also an argument to be made that Kansas had the right idea but went about it the wrong way. Tax policy is mind-numbingly arcane, and all the newspapers in the state are pretty much broke and nobody’s paying us to wade through all that stuff anymore, but so far as we can tell the bill that Brownback vetoed would have rescinded a previous measure that nearly eliminated taxes on income from certain legal entities used by small businesses, which is apparently known as “pass-through income.” This sounds like the sort of pro-Mom-and-Pop policy that every variety of Republican can support, but apparently some 330,000 Kansas businesses started passing all their income through those certain legal entities, and in a state of only 2.5 million people that’s a lot of Moms and Pops and probably enough to make a dent in a $350 million shortfall, and apparently that particular lower tax rate does yield to the usually reliable Laffer Curve.
After the first couple of shortfalls happened the establishment sorts of Republicans started winning primary challenges against the newly-minted anti-establishment types, and the paleolithic Sen. Pat Roberts won re-election despite an anti-establishment challenger that all the talk radio hosts loved, Brownback won re-election against one of those crazy tax-and-spend Democrats by a slighter margin, and the Kansas Republican party largely returned to its stodgy budget-balancing and non-boat-rocking ways. With help from the unified Democrats it came within three votes in the Senate from overriding the veto, and when everything’s up for grabs in Kansas’ off-year elections two years hence we won’t be betting on that pass-through exemption lasting long. The first rounds of shortfalls were met with spending cuts, which struck us as entirely reasonable after eight years of spendthrift Democratic administrations, but there are roads to be paved and bridges to be buttressed and kids to be educated in the state, and the biggest chunk of the state budget is obligated by the feds, so after the first few rounds of plucking there got be some squawking in even in the most Republican precincts. We read there’s a similar exemption included in the much speculated-about tax proposals from President Donald Trump, who won the state’s electoral votes just like every Republican does but finished a dismal third in the state’s Republican caucus, and we wonder how many Grand Old Party establishment types will be around to raise any objections to that.
We really don’t want to be ragging on Sam, as we call him, because we do like the guy. It’s an annoying stereotype about Kansans that we’re all supposed to know one another, but we have known Brownback since our teenaged days as interns with the famously Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole, and we’d run into him on the KSU campus where he was king and the Kansas State Fairs that he ran as Kansas Agricultural Commissioner and along his endless campaign stops, and we’ve always known him to be a very nice guy with a good enough sense of humor that he got our jokes. We also remain steadfast in our old-fashioned Kansas Republican belief that lower taxes are indeed generally more conducive to economic activity than higher ones, but we’re the old-fashioned sort of Kansas Republican who would prefer to get things right enough to balance the budget. Tax policy is arcane stuff, but if you delve deep enough into you’ll find that some tax cuts are better than others, and that sensible policies elsewhere would make it all less important, and that it’s all very complicated, and sometimes you have to pay at the bottom line. We rather like that some stodgy budget-balancing Republicanism is still afoot in the country, too, and hope that the old adage about lower taxes and economic activity will survive. May God have mercy on our souls, but we also hope they can work something out with those damned Democrats.

— Bud Norman

A Good Day, All in All

There was a lot of good news on Tuesday. Republicans won control of the Senate, increased their majority in the House of Representatives, reelected a few governors who will now be formidable presidential candidates, and the drubbed Democrats are blaming their already unpopular president. Still, our reaction is a sense of relief rather than elation.
That unpopular president will remain in office for another two years to create all sorts of domestic havoc with his pen and phone and penchant for ignoring constitutional restraints, he’ll still have plenty of legitimate authority to continue his disastrous foreign policy, and the best one can hope for from the newly Republican Congress is that they’ll limit the damage. Although the president was brusquely rebuffed by the electorate that will likely make him all the more defiant of public opinion, and the election results cannot be seen as a widespread public embrace of any Republican principles rather a much-needed obstructionism. Several races were saved by a temporary truce between the warring factions of the Republican party, a welcome development, but the divisions remain and the elections will likely bolster the less conservative side. Such godawful Democrats as Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall survived the night, too, and such sizable states as New York and California remain lost causes.
Our reflexive Republican gloominess notwithstanding, however, there really was a lot of good news. The sound of “Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid” is soothing to our ears, and a more conservative and assertive House majority might well prod its Senate colleagues into a more confrontational stance. The surviving Democrats won’t feel any further obligation to rally around a lame duck president who did little to offer them help and often seemed intent on sabotaging their campaigns, and whatever mischief the president might attempt on his own is going to be a good issue for the Republicans to run on in the next presidential race should the country survive to that late date. That nonsense about a “Republican war on women” fell so flat it probably won’t be revived any time soon, shameful efforts to increase black turnout with talk of Republicans gunning down innocent black children in the streets didn’t prevent their candidates from losing in Georgia and North Carolina and other southern states, and even great gobs of money from labor unions and fashionably liberal billionaires and gullible unemployed hipsters living in their parents’ basements under a fading “Hope and Change” poster couldn’t buy a win in the most hotly contested races.
Some pretty impressive politicians also stepped into the spotlight, too. We’re expecting good things from Senator-elect Joni Ernst in Iowa and Representative-elect Elise Stefanik in New York and Utah’s Representative-elect Mia Love, among others who won their first races, and we can also hope that their hard-earned wins put a final nail in the coffin of that “war on women” nonsense. Gov. Scott Walker’s comfortable margin of victory in Wisconsin, which was his third win in four years after a brutal recall effort two years ago, and came despite the more bare-knuckle sort of tactics by the pubic sector unions he had bravely challenge, sets him up nicely for a presidential run that we would be inclined to support. Wins by the similarly successful governors Rick Perry of Texas, John Kasich of Ohio, and Rick Snyder of Michigan indicate that the party will have a strong field of candidates outside of Washington, D.C., to choose from. Almost as satisfying was that such odious Democrats as Texas gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis and incumbent Colorado Sen. Mark Udall and Wisconsin gubernatorial nominee Mary Burke not only lost but wound up as laughingstocks in the process.
Things worked out well here in Kansas, as well, although it was too close for the comfort to which we have become accustomed. Gov. Sam Brownback had to sweat out a tight race, having annoyed the teachers’ unions and the Republicans who had been nicked by his budget-cutting and the hard-core Democrats who for some reason seethe with a red-hot hatred for every curly hair on his head, but he won despite the further disadvantage of not being able to tie a gubernatorial candidate to that unpopular president. We know Brownback to be a good man, but we’re mainly glad that the Democrats won’t be able to claim that his tax-and-budget-cutting policies had been repudiated.  In a race without an admitted Democrat, Sen. Pat Roberts won by a more comfortable margin, although not nearly what a Republican incumbent should expect in this state.  We attribute the victory mainly to that unpopular president and the putatively independent opponent’s inability to avoid an association with him, but also to the endorsements of such locally beloved conservative icons as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kansas State University football coach Bill Snyder. Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has been at the forefront of a national effort to restrict voting to eligible voters, survived an challenge that had been well-funded from donors around the nation who seek make voter fraud easier. All the Republican congressional incumbents won handily, including the First District’s Tim Huelskamp, whose conservative fervency had so annoyed his own party’s leadership that he was stripped of important committee assignments and was at one point thought vulnerable. Our favorite Sedgwick County Commissioner won, too, despite the reservation of the Republicans with a business interest in county politics and the Democrats’ lavish backing of an heiress to a local black political dynasty.

All the state and local races were close enough that the Democrats around here had great expectations, so it was also nice to see their hopes dashed yet again. Tuesday might not prevent another desultory couples of years, but it did provide some compensatory satisfactions.

— Bud Norman

Another Election Day

Today is Election Day, at long last, and we are glad of it. No matter how the races turn out, we will welcome a respite from the relentless campaigning.
Kansas is usually spared the worst of it, but this year a confluence of unfortunate events have made the state’s gubernatorial and senatorial elections unusually competitive, and as a result the state’s politics have been unusually pervasive. One can turn off the radio and television to avoid the barrage of advertisements, and curtail the evening walks to avoid all the yard signs proclaiming the neighbors’ poor choices, but there’s no escape in the internet, no avoiding the mailbox stuffed with fliers, and the phone has constantly been ringing with robocalls. Our avid interest in politics led us to consider all of it carefully in the beginning, but by now the fliers go to the trash unread and the commercials are ignored and the robocalls are hung up on as soon as they begin. Not that we’re shirking our civic duty to be well informed, as we knew all the arguments and had made our choices the day after the primaries, and although we’ve taken care to be apprised of any new revelations there haven’t been any worth noting.
The polls and the pundits give no indication of what the results will be, which is also unusual for Kansas at this late date in an election. Part of the problem is that the war within the Republican party between the “tea party” and “the establishment” has been especially hard fought here, leaving its candidates bruised and battered. Gov. Sam Brownback’s aggressive tax-cutting and budget-cutting was accomplished with help from like-minded “tea party” types who pulled off a remarkable primary purge during the movement’s high-water year of 2014, and a number of “establishment” types who had grown comfortable with expensive and bloated state government so long as they ran it have bolted from the party. Their support plus the wrath of the teachers’ unions who resented Brownback’s sensible proposal to allow incompetent teachers to be fire and all the liberals who hate Brownback with a red-hot passion that can not be explained in any possible terms have given a good chance of victory to Democratic opponent Paul Davis, a typical liberal from the typically liberal college town of Lawrence who has plenty of money to spend on adds that make his typical tax-and-spend politics sound some sensible and mainstream. Sen. Pat Roberts would be considered a “tea party” type in most jurisdictions, by contemporary Kansas Republican standards his 86 percent rating from the American Conservative Union is considered wimpy and he barely survived a primary challenge by a more rock-ribbed amateur only because of the opponent’s amateurishness and the fact that a couple of no-name votes split a crucial share of the widespread anti-Roberts sentiment. The Democrats still withdrew from the race, however, in order to clear the way for a self-proclaimed independent named Greg Orman whose personal fortune and the donations of some even more well-heeled out-of-state liberals have allowed him to run a very professional campaign positioning the former Democratic candidate and longtime Democratic donor as a non-partisan centrist. Throw in a widespread anti-incumbency mood among that significant bloc of voters too stupid and lazy to consider which party’s incumbents they hate most, and it’s a rare nail-biter in this state.
We remain cautiously optimistic that both Brownback and Roberts will survive close calls, but won’t make any wagers. All the tiresome cliches about how it all comes down to turnout are applicable, and it’s hard to figure who has the edge in this regard. The Democrats are fired up with their red-hot hatred of Brownback, but his ardent supporters in the anti-abortion movement are reliable voters with the extra incentive of Davis’ radically pro-abortion record and the more libertarian among the party will be spooked by the prospect of handing another two years of control of the Senate to Democrats.and we expect that many of the “establishment” types who don’t actually hold jobs in the state government and party establishment are still Republican enough that they won’t vote for what is after all a tax-and-spend platform. All those Democrats itching to vote against Brownback will also vote against Roberts, even if without the enthusiasm of voting for an admitted Democrat, but we expect that Republicans will also wind up voting for Roberts, even without the enthusiasm of voting for a more full-throated and rock-ribbed Republican. Numerous politicians with impeccably conservative credentials have pitched in on the campaign, that vanquished primary opponent has belatedly offered his endorsement, and the non-stop argument that a vote for Orman could keep the Democrats in control of the Senate should limit the number of conservatives sitting this one out.
So it really all comes down to getting out those voters who haven’t been paying attention, and there’s no telling how that will unfold. The National Rifle Association has spent a great deal of money to get the state’s sizable population of gun owners revved up on behalf of both Brownback and Roberts, a ridiculous referendum proposal to raise Wichita’s already sky-high sales taxes will bring out a lot of tightfisted taxpayers in the state’s largest city and will probably add a few votes to the Republican totals, the weather is forecast to be chilly, Roberts has a party organization while Orman will be piggybacking on the Democrats efforts, Kansas State University’s beloved football coach has come out strong for Roberts, and the same anti-Obama sentiment that is said to be brewing a Republican wave has been washing over Kansas for the past six years. Only the most hard-core of the Democrats seem fired up, too, and the all-important hipsters down at the local dive seem not to have noticed all the pervasive politics. It’s enough to make us confident, but quite cautiously so.
We’ll take our biennial stroll to a nearby Lutheran church and cast our votes, then anxiously follow the results here and across the nation. We’re watching the Wisconsin gubernatorial race and the Iowa Senate contest and of course will be keeping track of the Republicans’ numbers in the Senate and House, so it will be a full day of politics. After that we’ll try to take a day off from the stuff, and savor of the sound of the phone not dining with robocalls.

— 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

A Race We’d Like to See

A headline on the Drudge Report announced that “Sebelius Eyes Senate Run,” and we couldn’t resist clicking to the story to find out what state she had in mind. Imagine our amusement when we learned it was Kansas.
The story was from The New York Times, a notoriously humorless newspaper, so we assume it isn’t jest. Even so, the notion of Kathleen Sebelius coming back to Kansas for another campaign struck us as every bit as preposterous as anything we’ve encountered lately in the more fanciful internet parody publications. Had the story mentioned Maryland or Virginia or whatever state she’s been living in during her disastrous tenure as Secretary of Health and Human Services the idea would have sounded far-fetched but frighteningly within the realm of possibility, and taking her carpetbag to a dementedly Democratic state such as Massachusetts or California would have seemed slightly more plausible, but a Sebelius for Senate campaign here in Kansas left us waiting for a punchline.
It is embarrassingly true that Sebelius was twice elected governor of the state, as the Times hopefully notes, but that was long ago in the pre-Obama age. At a time when things were going well enough in the state that it seemed safe to elect a Democrat she managed to beat a couple of fire-breathing radicals nominated by the more stridently religious elements of the Republican party by presenting herself as as a respectably center-right sort of technocrat. Immediately after her re-election she veered sharply to the left in an apparent bid to endear herself to the national party, and it worked well enough to earn her a cabinet position that would forever associate her with Barack Obama, Obamaism, and its historic achievement of Obamacare. This would be a political impediment in almost any American jurisdiction east of Los Angeles or west of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but in Kansas it is now a provocation to tar and feathers.
Since Sebelius’ last win in the state Kansas has voted overwhelmingly against Obama in both of the past presidential elections, chosen a governor conservative enough to drive all the local lefties crazy, and sent a delegation of rather rock-ribbed Republicans to Congress. Even the most fire-breathing radicals that the religious right might serve up now seem center-right and technocratic compared to Democrats such as Sebelius, and it looks to last at least another election cycle. We ran recently ran into a friend who owes his professional fortunes to the Democratic Party, and we eager to hear his insider’s view on who the party would be running next November. He waved off the question with a groan and a long swig of his drink, then admitted that he didn’t think it mattered. He’s been trying to endear himself to the occasional visitors from the aforementioned conservative governor’s office, even though our friend is among the liberals driven crazy by the governor, and has written off all the other races as well.
The motive for Sebelius’ possible run into this unfriendly environment, according to the Times, is “revenge.” Sen. Pat Roberts is up for re-election this year, and although Roberts once enjoyed a friendly relationship with Sebelius and voted for her confirmation to the HHS post he later accused her of “gross incompetence” and called for her resignation. The accusation was accurate, and the resignation was eventually forthcoming, but reportedly Sebelius wants satisfaction. She’s been out of the state long enough that she might well have deluded herself that she could beat Roberts, and Roberts probably hopes that she has.
Roberts has a slightly better chance of getting knocked off in the primary by a guy named Dr. Milton Wolf. He’s a Kansas City area radiologist who is waging one of those anti-establishment insurgencies that are popping up around the country. Although he’s gotten some traction with the argument that Roberts has been in Washington for a long time and no longer has a residence in Kansas, and that Roberts did after all vote for Sebelius’ confirmation, Wolf is under-funded and made some outrageous and widely-publicized Facebook gaffes with x-rays of his patients, and he is clearly an amateur running against an old pro who is generally well-liked in the state and has lately been toeing the conservative line. We expect a relatively easy win for Roberts in the primary, and an easier one in the general election against anyone the Democrats might put up. If the Democrats put up Sebelius, that would almost be too easy.
The state’s Democrats would probably put her on the ballot, however, if Sebelius is sufficiently self-deluded to make a run. Whenever they know a race is un-winnable the Democrats around here like to run the full-blown lefty lunatics that would win by landslides in the Kansas of their dreams, and when they lose by an ever larger-than-usual margin it allows them to feel superior to an even larger percentage of the state. Sebelius might be willing to sacrifice what little is left of her dignity to the cause of lefty smugness in the Sunflower State, but even the Times story is cautious about that possibility. Several unnamed Democrats are urging Sebelius to run, according to the story, and another unnamed person is said to have said that she’s thinking about it, but that’s pretty much the extent of what the nation’s erstwhile paper of record has to go on. We can’t shake a suspicion that the story was a run as a trial balloon to re-pay some past favor Sebelius did the Times, and that the amused reaction out here will quickly put an end to such ridiculous speculation.

— Bud Norman

Bleeding Kansas Again

Our favorite right-wing radio station has lately been airing an attack ad against Dr. Milton Wolf, and it sounds as if the battle for the soul of the Republican party has once again come to Kansas.
Even if you’re reading this far outside the Sunflower State you might have already heard of Wolf, the Kansas City-area radiologist who is challenging Sen. Pat Roberts for their party’s nomination, if only because he is also a second cousin of President Barack Obama. He’s from the Kansas side of the family and is as severe a critic of Obama as you’re likely to find even among the most outspoken corners of the Republican party here on the prairie, so his long shot race against an entrenched incumbent has piqued some bemused curiosity from the national press. That Roberts apparently sees a need to dip into his campaign chest and reservoir of political capital with a response to Wolf’s numerous withering and widely-aired advertisements, however, suggests that something more significant than an extended family squabble is afoot.
The determination of the more conservative and combative Republican voters to rid their party of its more moderate and accommodating elements has figured in several important contests the past few election cycles, and been widely reported by a press eager to gloat over the occasionally catastrophic results, but when a politician such as Roberts finds himself among the plausible targets it is a new development. Roberts is not only as entrenched an incumbent as sits in Congress, he has also carefully cultivated a reputation for both conservatism and combativeness, so if he is vulnerable to a primary challenge it is hard to imagine anyone in the party who is not. The critique of Roberts’ career is also telling, and seems a template for the attempted reconstruction of the party.
So far as we can understand the rationale for Wolf’s candidacy, Roberts’ entrenched incumbency is the problem. Kansans and other small state denizens have traditionally regarded incumbency as an argument for yet another re-election, given the power of seniority to deliver pork in packages inordinate to the relatively puny size of our congressional delegation, but in an age of $17 trillion debt there is an understandable lack of enthusiasm among conservatives for pork and a reflexive suspicion of anyone that has been around Washington for the extended period of time it has been piling up. Roberts’ time there has been undeniably extended, starting when he arrived after brief stints in the Marines and journalism as an aide to Sen. Frank Carlson in 1967 and stretching through eight terms as the vast First District’s Representative before winning a Senate seat of his own in 1996, so at this point he can hardly claim to be an outsider. The charge has compounded by the revelation that Roberts no longer has a Kansas residence of his own, which is the sort of thing that Kansans quite resent, as gleefully reported by The New York Times, and we suspect that is the reason that Roberts is now taking to the airwaves with his own indignant charge that Wolf’s campaign contributions are coming from out of the state.
What’s missing from Wolf’s advertisements, however, are any substantive policy disagreements with Roberts. Although Roberts once presented himself as a pragmatically conservative politician in the style of Sens. Bob Dole and Nancy Landon Kassebaum and his mentor Carlson, back when the debt didn’t seem so worrisome and that sort of deal-making proficiency still struck most Kansans as good for business, but in recent years his voting record has been carefully in line with the more conservative mood of his constituents. Wolf’s pitch makes much of Roberts’ vote to confirm fellow Kansan and former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services, but that was before Obamacare was passed and since then Roberts has repeatedly demanded her resignation. Roberts was complicit in much of the profligacy of the Bush years, but Bush won landslide majorities of the Kansas vote in both campaigns and since the even greater profligacy of the Obama years Roberts has become reliably stingy. The media onslaught against the partial government shutdown and the Republicans’ intermittent debt ceiling squabbles have not deterred Roberts from voting with the Tea Party caucus on every occasion, and his public pronouncements on the controversies have been filled with all the crusty invective a Kansas conservative might hope for.
Perhaps Roberts has tacked so far to the right only because he held a licked thumb to the winds and noted which way they were blowing, but we’re not sure that such political savviness should be punished rather than put to good use. Given a choice between two candidates who would vote the same way in every instance, there is no compelling argument for the political neophyte with no chance at an important committee position rather than the shrewd veteran whose seniority ensures influence and whose cynicism insures ideological compliance. We share Wolf’s frustration with the establishment, and remain open to his arguments, but he hasn’t yet convinced us that we’d be better served with him as our Senator. Nor has he assuaged a nagging concern that his challenge could be a problem for the party.
Should Wolf win the primary we’ll happily vote for him over anyone the state’s Democrats might put up, we’d just as happily pull the lever for Roberts, and no one here seems at all concerned that a majority of Kansans will do the same, so the Wolf insurgency is unlikely in any case to affect the party’s chances of re-taking the Senate from the strangling grip of the Democrats. A similar restiveness in less reliably Republican states could unseat an experienced politician with a chance of winning and nominating an inexperienced amateur who will lose a winnable election with an another amateurish outburst, however, and the party can ill-afford such zeal. As much as we appreciate to the effort to build a more conservative Republican party, and wish it well in those states where the more conservative candidate can actually win, we would prefer that it reconfigure itself into something effective as well as ideologically pure. What does it profit a party to save it soul if it loses the world?

— Bud Norman