What’s the matter with Kansas?


Paul Davis, the presumed Democratic nominee for Kansas governor, speaks at a news conference announcing the endorsements by more than 100 current and former Republican politicians on Tuesday in Topeka, Kan. The list of participating Republicans was led by Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, who has clashed with Gov. Sam Brownback on health care policy. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Anybody who is shocked by the moderate Republican revolt in Kansas this week -- in which more than 100 current and former Republican elected officials endorsed the Democratic opponent of Gov. Sam Brownback (R) -- probably hasn't been following Kansas politics for too long.

Long before the current national GOP "civil war," Kansas Republicans were engaged in their own -- still raging -- version.

The story is captured in the 2004 book "What's the Matter with Kansas" -- Thomas Frank's decidedly unsympathetic recap of how conservatives took over what was once a moderate Republican haven in the American heartland. (Sample passage: "When I told a friend of mine about the impoverished High Plains county so enamored of President Bush, she was perplexed. ... How could so many people get it so wrong?")

To hear Frank tell it, it all began in the early 1990s, after the Reagan Revolution, when social conservatives decided that their time had arrived:

All through the eighties, the state legislature was dominated by traditional moderate Republicans, passing legislation like a well-oiled machine. …

In 1992, though, began an uprising that would propel those reptilian Republicans from a tiny splinter group into the state’s dominant political faction, that would reduce Kansas Democrats to third-party status, and that would wreck what remained of the state’s progressive legacy.

The history of moderate and even liberal Republicans from Kansas is a lengthy one -- from 1936 GOP presidential candidate Alf Landon to Dwight Eisenhower to Bob Dole and former senator Nancy Kassebaum -- and pro-life activists certainly wanted to make their point.

But it actually began before 1992. In the state's 1990 governor's race, real estate agent Nestor Weigand challenged moderate Gov. Mike Hayden in the Republican primary. Hayden, who was then the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, survived the primary but later lost to a pro-life Democrat, Joan Finney, in a race in which abortion was front-and-center.

Conservative Republicans and pro-life activists then picked up where Weigand left off, effectively taking control of the GOP from the ground level up. By 1993, the AP wrote, "In Kansas, Christian conservative forces control much of the party at the county and precinct level but decided at the last minute not to challenge the moderate state GOP leaders, pledging instead to work with them."

That would change. In 1996 came a now-familiar face: Brownback.

After a moderate Republican governor -- Bill Graves -- appointed his moderate lieutenant governor -- Sheila Frahm -- to the vacancy left by Dole in 1996, conservatives saw their opportunity. They lined up behind Brownback and beat Frahm in the August 1996 primary. They also took three of the state's four congressional districts.

By 1998, conservatives had taken over the state board of education, a post they used to remove evolution from the state's curricula. Control of the school board bounced back and forth for a few years after that.

The divide has cropped up in a number of ways since then, too. Conservative Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.) lost his 2006 reelection race but sought the seat again in 2008, only to lose to moderate state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins in the primary. In 2010, conservatives struck back, with now-Rep. Mike Pompeo beating a pro-abortion rights state senator, Jean Schodorf, in the GOP primary and conservative firebrand Tim Huelskamp beating the less conservative state Sen. Jim Barnett in his primary.

In 2012, moderates were dealt perhaps their biggest blow. After moderate Republican state legislators combined with Democrats to block Brownback's tax-cut plan, a redistricting bill and an education bill, the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity and the Chamber of Commerce helped upset more than half a dozen moderate Republican state senators and effectively rendered that wing of the party powerless.

But, from time to time, the fight isn't just about Republicans, and it actually accrues to Democrats' benefit. Kansas hasn't elected a Democratic U.S. senator since 1932, but it has elected Democrats to other posts -- often with the help of GOP infighting.

That was certainly the case with two-term former governor and recently departed Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose lieutenant governor pick in 2006 was a moderate former state Republican Party chairman, Mark Parkinson. That same year, another former Republican party-switcher, Paul Morrison, was elected attorney general. In bolting the GOP, Morrison cited its focus on the abortion issue.

Democrats also held down a congressional seat in the Kansas City suburbs after a very conservative one-term congressman, Vince Snowbarger, saw moderate Republicans cross over to vote for Democrat Dennis Moore. Snowbarger took over the district from a moderate Republican congresswoman, Jan Meyers.

Democrats, needless to say, hope that version of history repeats itself in 2014. Polls show state Rep. Paul Davis (D) is well-positioned to give Brownback a run for his money, and history suggests moderate Republican voters -- in addition to the 100-plus elected officials who endorsed Davis -- can bolt from the GOP under the right circumstances.

"Davis is no Sebelius," said one Republican granted anonymity to offer a candid take, "but this is exactly what happened in the '90s."

The conservatives have certainly had the upper-hand in recent years, but the moderates can still swing a race under the right circumstances.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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