1. The Kansas Legislature does not represent Kansas overall
In Kansas, Republicans enjoy an overwhelming majority of voters – and hence, an
overwhelming majority in the Kansas Legislature. Yet, the vote on the Value Them Both amendment was rejected, and not by a small margin, either – it lost by a nearly 20 percent margin.
Intuitively, in our everyday lives, we know that Kansans aren’t filled with as much venom and fear as it seems they are in our election rhetoric. Travel across the state and you’ll find people who are friendly, engaging, curious, and eager to help one another. Yet, somehow, this doesn’t translate in the political sphere.
The Aug. 2 vote demonstrates that when a broader cross section of Kansas gets out to vote and have their voices heard, the results are much different than when things are decided by the most partisan factions in our state. I have been arguing for ages that most elections in this state are decided by fewer than 20 percent of voters – and more often than not, somewhere between 11-15 percent. Even though turnout appears to have been historically high for this primary election, early numbers show 908,745 votes cast on the Constitutional amendment, which is less than half of the state’s 1.9 million registered voters. Meanwhile, most of the candidates pushed forward in Republican primaries won with roughly 450,000-460,000 votes – or about 24 percent of the state’s eligible voters.
Take the race for Attorney General – which is restricted to Republican voters and had 462,656 voters. Uber-conservative and wannabe fascist Kris Kobach won with 42 percent of those votes, or 195,701. This means Kobach will earn his party’s nomination and be a competitive candidate for Attorney General with only 10.3 percent of the state’s voters supporting him. This year, the Democrats have a good candidate in Chris Mann, but in most years Kobach’s primary victory would allow him to skate into the office largely unopposed with an incredibly small minority of voters.
In the legislature, this is an even bigger problem. Take the Ford County primary race for House District 119, between the reasonable Republican Brad Ralph and his extreme opponent Jason Goetz. There were 5,357 people who voted on the Constitutional Amendment – with the Yes vote winning by a mere 211 votes. Ralph’s race had a total of only 1,404 voters, and he lost by just 117 votes. Granted, the 119th district doesn’t cover all of Ford County, and I don’t know how many eligible voters are within the district. But I think it’s fair to say that a legislator who is fair-minded and thoughtful – and whose legal expertise has more than once prevented the legislature from doing some stupid things – lost because primary voters tend to elect the most extreme candidates from their parties. This was also the case in other races across the state – in which at least four reasonable Republicans lost to their more extreme competitors. So even though it looks like a coalition of reasonable Republicans, Democrats, and Unaffiliated voters held against the amendment, the legislature is likely to get more conservative as Republican primary voters continue to purge reasonable, moderate Republican lawmakers from their ranks.
2. Republicans elected to the Kansas Legislature have shown over and over again that given the chance they will go too far. If there’s extremism at all in Kansas, it’s in the Republican party.
For all the talk and hand wringing over “liberal extremists” trying to impose their will on Kansas, there is no real threat of that in this state. Democrats have had control of even one part of the Kansas legislature only three times in the state’s history. Every other year, for as long as we’ve been a state, Republicans have been firmly in control of state government and policy. And the longer it’s gone on, the more entrenched that control becomes. As they enjoy comfortable majorities in the legislature, and at times unstoppable super majorities, the ruling Republicans tend to step into an echo chamber of their own making. They believe that voters have sent them to Topeka with a mandate – and with that, they always tend to go too far. That’s in part because they understand that they don’t have to truly represent the broader Kansas electorate – they just have to win a Republican primary. And in those races, the more extreme the better. I think there’s an authentic discussion to be had about what it has traditionally meant to be a Republican. Today’s version is not what it used to be. At all. And reasonable Republican leaders are retiring from politics and abandoning today’s version of the Republican party.
3. Education in Kansas is under attack and under a real threat.
The least sexy – but among the most important – elections are for the State Board of Education, which under the Kansas Constitution sets and directs education policy in the state (our predecessors were wise to take this away from the whims and neurosis of the Kansas Legislature). Two very good and reasonable Republican board members lost to extreme Republican candidates. Jean Clifford and Ben Jones have served the students of Kansas well, but they were routed in Tuesday’s election. Ben Jones will be replaced by Dennis Hershberger, who is chair of the Reno County Republican Party and a Mark Steffen disciple. He centered his election around overblown fears about CRT (critical race theory) and SEL (social emotional learning). Jean Clifford will be replaced by Cathy Hopkins. I don’t know much about her since she’s not in my area, but a quick search shows that she’s cut from the same cloth as Hershberger. These State Board of Education races generally fly under the radar, but they get our attention when we elect extreme candidates and end up having conversations about the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s role in education policy. And to my previous point about a handful of voters picking these people – Hershberger got 30,767 votes and Hopkins got 28,081 and due to the lack of a Democratic contender in these races, they’ll skate in without opposition and bring their extreme ideas with them. And they won’t have to worry about appealing to a broader audience because they just have to keep a small faction of their party happy to prevail in the next election.
4. We’re not having an honest conversation about abortion in Kansas
While Kansans on both sides of this issue have legitimate and deeply held beliefs, in the political sphere we have not had an honest conversation about abortion. From day one, the effort behind the Value Them Both amendment was plagued with chicanery and deceit. From scheduling a vote to change the Kansas Constitution on a primary election – which had only been done a few times in our state’s history, and then for relatively insignificant concerns – to the last minute text messages that came from disgraced congressman Tim Huelskamp’s group, specifically designed to confuse likely “no” voters – this thing has been riddled with misinformation.
I went through 10 years of Kansas abortion data. There hasn’t been an abortion performed after 22 weeks in this state in that entire time – but to hear the marketing on this, you’d be led to believe that this was a common occurrence in Kansas. Based on that same marketing, you’d also believe that the number of abortions in the state had skyrocketed, and that we’ve become the abortion capitol of the country. The truth, however, is that there were far more abortions in Kansas during the late 1990s and early 2000s than there have been in the past several years.
Likewise, there’s this prevailing thought that there are a lot of taxpayer funded abortions - or without passage of this amendment there will soon be. That is also untrue. In recent years, going back to 2013, there have been four abortions provided to Medicaid recipients - for a total cost of roughly $400 to Kansas taxpayers. Each one was deemed medically necessary to save the mother’s life. That is the true extent of “taxpayer funded” abortions in Kansas.
The 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling didn’t invalidate every regulation about abortion, as was advertised. Those all remained in place. It’s accurate that they could’ve been challenged in court, and perhaps those wouldn’t have held up. But the argument that the ruling immediately invalidated any and all regulation was patently false. It’s also true that passage of the amendment wouldn’t have led to an immediate ban on abortion – but it’s completely true that changing the Kansas Constitution would’ve allowed this and any future legislature to create – or invalidate – any rules it wanted on abortion. When people asked me about the Value Them Both amendment, I would say that the question wasn’t where one stood on abortion, but rather whether you trust the Kansas Legislature. In most cases, the answer to that question is a resounding no.
We also never talk about policies that would prevent the reasons people get abortions. We know that access to affordable contraception, education, and economic opportunities reduce abortions. All we ever talk about in Kansas is how to constrain rights or restrict access to abortion. There is more than one approach to solve this equation, but it’s sadly missing from the conversation.
5. We are here because the extreme elements in the Republican party are engaged, involved, and never miss a vote while many of us sit on the sidelines. And they are not done.
Kansas has an interesting political history. We often go on living our lives, while the really politically engaged keep working. Then, every now and then, something happens that gets everyone’s attention and pulls them into the voting booth. It seems that’s what happened with the Value Them Both amendment – while the election within the Republican primary produced losses for moderates and wins for the far right, the broader electorate rejected the right’s signature issue. Voters, in effect, said overwhelmingly that it went too far. I haven’t had a chance to do a deep dive on the stats, but a cursory review shows that a lot of unaffiliated voters came out, and likely a bunch of women from all stripes who didn’t like the overbroad language of the amendment. But the world will return to normal – and the extreme factions of the Republican party will lick their wounds and go back to work. We’ll see this issue raised again and again, likely until they get what they want. The groups who finance these efforts will continue to spend millions on campaigns instead of using that money to help people.
If we want to get out of this feedback loop, everyone who came out for this election will need to stay involved. They will need to vote – and they will need to vote in a way that forces the Kansas legislature back toward the middle. It’s now very clear that Kansas, as a whole, isn’t nearly as extreme as our political rhetoric makes it seem. If we are ever going to force our policy to reflect the broader values of this state, it’s going to take more people voting for people who more accurately represent the will of Kansas voters – and not just a small faction that seems to have overtaken one party.