By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 30, 2006
CHICAGO, Dec. 29 -- Phill Kline is not one to slink away -- and the ideological wars inside the Kansas Republican Party show no sign of ending.
The fiercely antiabortion Republican attorney general in Kansas lost his reelection bid in November when moderate Republicans voted in droves for Paul Morrison, a longtime Johnson County district attorney who became a Democrat in hopes of vanquishing Kline.
Statewide, Kline got barely 4 in 10 votes. In Johnson County, the state's most populous county, his loss was more dramatic. That made it especially shocking after the election when Republican precinct leaders in the county chose Kline to finish the final two years of Morrison's term as prosecutor.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), a vocal Kline foe, refused to sign his nomination papers, a ceremonial task, lambasting a "small narrow group of partisan political operatives" for choosing him. At the Westside Family Church in Lenexa, after precinct leaders backed Kline over a Morrison aide 316 to 291, Republicans showed just how divided they are.
"The moment Phill Kline got the nomination, half the room got up and walked out," said Scott Schwab, the county GOP chairman. "It wasn't so much yelling or cussing. They threw up their arms and said, 'What do we do now?' "
Kline's reincarnation as Johnson County prosecutor reveals the depth of the continuing Republican split in Kansas and suggests challenges faced by the GOP nationwide as it tries to recover from its Nov. 7 losses and build toward 2008.
Republicans lost their U.S. House and Senate majorities and 350 seats in state legislatures across the country. The early post-election Kansas experiences show that a recovery could be difficult because the splits inside the party between social conservatives and moderates will not be easily healed.
Given the defeats in Kansas of religious conservatives such as Kline, U.S. Rep. Jim Ryun (R) and some members of the State Board of Education, one Kansas political analyst expected the GOP "would be ready to mend fences and move forward."
But that has not yet happened.
"I think the divide between the moderates and conservatives is deepening rather than closing," said Kansas State University professor Joseph Aistrup. "This type of politics is continuing into our future, at least another four years."
The Kansas political divide has drawn outsized attention in recent years. The state was the setting for an influential 2004 book by Thomas Frank, "What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America."
Against that backdrop, Kline made headlines with his assault on abortion clinics while the Board of Education drew worldwide attention -- and some ridicule -- for its endorsement of challenges to firmly established Darwinian theory.
More recently, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), a social conservative thought to be considering running for president, drew notice for holding up a federal judicial nomination when he learned the nominee had attended a commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple. He said he wanted to know whether she had presided.
Kansas Democrats and moderate Republicans fought back this year. In the midterm elections, Democrat Nancy Boyda stunned five-term incumbent Ryun, while moderate Republicans Morrison and his friend Mark Parkinson, a former chairman of the Kansas GOP, changed parties and easily won statewide office.
Morrison and Parkinson, the incoming lieutenant governor, were both recruited by Sebelius and both came from Johnson County, where moderates say they are particularly fed up with Kline, 46, a gregarious former scholarship wrestler and radio announcer.
Morrison outpolled Kline 65 percent to 35 percent in the traditionally Republican county. Then came Kline's election by Republican insiders to the district attorney's office.
"It just looks like a slap in the face to the voters of Johnson County to have him put in there," said Robert H. Meneilly, a former Presbyterian pastor and a lifelong Republican who intends to change parties.
"I've stayed in the party because my wife thinks you can do more inside the party than out," Meneilly said. "That hasn't been the fact so far."
Schwab, the Johnson County GOP chairman, strongly backed Kline for attorney general and thinks he will be a good prosecutor -- as long as his government work "is not about Phill Kline's ego, but about justice."
Yet Schwab said Kline's election will cause problems for the GOP as Democrats try to extend their gains in a state President Bush twice won handily.
"My job is to elect Republicans, and he made it very difficult," Schwab said.
Kline remained undeterred by defeat, firing a final volley against Kansas abortion clinics as he prepared to leave the attorney general's office. He filed charges against George Tiller, accusing the Wichita doctor of performing illegal late-term abortions.
A Wichita judge dismissed all counts, ruling that Kline had overstepped his authority.
Kline tried to extend his investigation by naming as a special prosecutor a staunchly antiabortion Wichita lawyer. Morrison, who has criticized Kline repeatedly for injecting politics into the attorney general's office, said he will review the files but made clear that the tenure of Kline's appointee will be short.
"Kansans expect more from their attorney general," Morrison said, "than grandstanding and stunts."
Kline is not unhappy. He got the new job, a fresh platform and even a raise. The Johnson County job pays $50,000 more than he made as attorney general.