By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006
WICHITA -- Paul Morrison, a career prosecutor who specializes in putting killers behind bars, has the bulletproof résumé and the rugged looks of a law-and-order Republican, which is what he was until last year. That was when he announced he would run for attorney general -- as a Democrat.
He is now running neck-and-neck with Republican Phill Kline, an iconic social conservative who made headlines by seeking the names of abortion-clinic patients and vowing to defend science-teaching standards that challenge Darwinian evolution. What's more, Morrison is raising money faster than Kline and pulling more cash from Republicans than Democrats.
Nor is Morrison alone. In a state that voted nearly 2 to 1 for President Bush in 2004, nine former Republicans will be on the November ballot as Democrats. Among them is Mark Parkinson, a former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, who changed parties to run for lieutenant governor with the popular Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius.
"I'd reached a breaking point," Parkinson said, preparing for a rally in Wichita alongside Sebelius. "I want to work on relevant issues and not on a lot of things that don't matter."
The Kansas developments coincide with efforts by Democrats across the country to capture moderate Republican and independent voters dismayed with partisan bickering from both parties, particularly from the Republican right. The spirit of the attempted Democratic comeback in Kansas, set by Sebelius, is a search for the workable political center.
Though yet untested in the election booth, the Democratic developments in Kansas reflect polls in many parts of the country. As elsewhere, Democrats and moderate Republicans say they are frustrated with policies and practices they trace to Republican leadership, including the Iraq war, ballooning government spending, ethics violations and the influence of social conservatives.
A long-standing split among Kansas Republicans has deepened in recent years. One fresh sign came from the Johnson County Sun, which said it would endorse virtually the entire Democratic ticket, including Morrison and Parkinson, after endorsing fewer than a dozen Democrats in the past half-century.
"So what in the world has happened?" publisher Steve Rose asked in a recent column. "The Republican Party has changed, and it has changed monumentally. You almost cannot be a victorious traditional Republican candidate with mainstream values in Johnson County or in Kansas anymore." Ron Freeman, executive director of the Kansas GOP, called the migrating candidates -- Parkinson, Morrison and seven state House candidates, including one party-switching incumbent -- "a simple case of political opportunism."
"It's really more about them than it is about the party," Freeman said. "They obviously feel the Democratic Party is weak enough that, without any history in the party, they can be front-runners in the party."
Republicans control three-quarters of the state Senate and two-thirds of the House. The state has not elected a Democratic U.S. senator since the 1930s, although voters have been more willing to put Democrats in the governor's mansion. Rep. Dennis Moore became the lone Kansas Democrat in Congress in 1998 by appealing to crossover moderates -- the heart of this year's strategy.
Democrats consider it significant that 58 GOP incumbents in the state House drew Democratic opposition this year, compared with 39 in 2004. In the September primary, moderates mobilized to carry two Board of Education seats held by conservatives who had embarrassed many Kansans by endorsing a fundamentalist-Christian critique of evolution.
The recruiter-in-chief is Sebelius, who persuaded Republican Cessna executive John E. Moore to switch parties in 2002 and run to be her lieutenant governor.
"These are people who felt banished," Sebelius said in an interview before crowing to Democratic campaign workers: "We have some remarkable conversions. My favorite kind of revival is going to a place where someone says, 'I've been a Republican all my life, and I've seen the light.' " Sebelius, who has a solid lead over Republican challenger Jim Barnett, is the daughter-in-law of a Republican former member of Congress, and she likes to say the first Republican she converted was her husband. She has shown, notably in debates over school funding and the state budget, that she can negotiate compromises acceptable to both parties. Kansas has had a balanced budget for four straight years after six years of deficits.
This year, with Moore stepping aside, Sebelius recruited Parkinson, who views himself as squarely in the mainstream, talking up fiscal responsibility and a favorable business climate. He favors embryonic stem cell research, a woman's right to choose abortion and the teaching of evolution as settled scientific theory.
It was also the governor who sold Morrison on the attorney general's race. "She said what I'd been thinking for three years," Morrison said.
In a Morrison radio ad, John Walsh of "America's Most Wanted" introduces the Johnson County district attorney as "one of the toughest prosecutors Kansas has ever seen" and names two of Morrison's best-known murder cases. Walsh asserts, in a dig at Kline, that after 26 years as a prosecutor, Morrison has the "right priorities."
Kline is a confident politician who has buoyed the Republican right and disturbed his opponents. He drafted a law restricting late-term abortion and won a recent Supreme Court case reinstating the death penalty. His most controversial moves were subpoenaing the medical records of more than 80 women and girls who received abortions in 2003 and seeking to require health workers to report the sexual activities of girls under 16.
"The office has become much more political under his leadership," Morrison said in an interview in his Olathe office. Morrison says his political hero is former U.S. senator John C. Danforth, the Missourian who recently published a rebuke of the GOP that contends the national party is beholden to the Christian right.
"Most Kansas Republicans are fairly moderate," Morrison said. "They're like most Kansas Democrats."
Kline spokeswoman Sherriene Jones denied Morrison's contention that the Kansas GOP has moved too far to the right: "The Republican Party reflects Kansas values, reflects loyalty and reflects family," she said. "It's Mr. Morrison who has changed."
The Democratic National Committee is spending money and sending staff to Kansas as part of Chairman Howard Dean's much-debated 50-state strategy of extending the party's influence in unlikely places. The DNC will not reveal its spending or the size of the staff, but a spokesman said the infusion permits a statewide organizing effort not possible before.
With Sebelius and Parkinson so far ahead in the gubernatorial race, attention has shifted to the competition for attorney general, considered too close to call. As Parkinson, who describes Morrison as his best friend, puts it, "It's going to say a whole lot about what the state of Kansas is right now."
Whatever happens, Kansas State University political scientist Joseph A. Aistrup said, the duel between Republican moderates and conservatives will no doubt continue. He said the party switchers represent a "temporary setback" for the state GOP.
"The cultural conservatives have lost before, and they just keep on coming back," Aistrup said. "They don't pick up their marbles and go home."