Monday, September 4, 2006
You need sniff no further than the Kansas Republican Party's own website to get a decent whiff of that putrid, clinging stench of fear, which now hangs over the state GOP like a wet pachyderm queef.
"No Need To Panic," pleads the homepage at ksgop.org. Immediately beneath that quivering hyperlink lies an even more telling bit of Freudian mock-bravado: "What, Me Worried?" (Question for Republican strategists: Exactly at what point in an election year is it considered desirable to draw direct comparisons between your party and Alfred E. Neuman?)
The reason for the Republicans' soiled Dockers? Mid-term elections are coming up and the political landscape is looking to be about as kind to conservative politicians as penicillin is to the clap. Considering that the Kansas Republican Party has a lock on both chambers of the state congress which would make Mussolini blush, and considering that George W. Bush received a greater vote share in Kansas for the 2004 election than he did in Texas, how is it that Kansas Republicans are so petrified?
Don Haider-Markel, professor of politics at the University of Kansas, thinks that the party's national woes might be affecting them on the state level.
"Bush's approval ratings are pretty low, the Republican Congress' approval ratings are pretty low. It's not such a great time to be a Republican right now," he says.
Case in point? Kent Goyen. A lifelong resident of Pratt, Kan., and a lifelong registered Republican, Kent's not exactly the portrait of a sushi-eating, Volvo-driving eunuch. He's a farmer and substitute teacher in a part of the county that's commonly thought to be slightly to the right of 17th century Salem.
In a rural drawl that wouldn't be out of place narrating "The Dukes of Hazzard," Kent speaks derisively of "you guys back east" (meaning us cosmopolitan types in Lawrence) and "pie in the sky" politics. Goyen, in short, is someone whose profile gives Karl Rove a hard-on. This November, Kent's running to represent the 114th Kansas Congressional District - as a Democrat.
"I'm not sure that the Republican Party is really the voice of what I really think it ought to be or what it was years ago. There was an ideology change," says the newly minted Democratic candidate. "By changing parties to the Democrats, then everybody gets a chance to be represented. I thought that was kind of important."
Kent's not alone. By the Kansas Democratic Party's own count, there are nine formerly Republican candidates who have jumped mascots and are now hoping to ride the jackass to victory this November.
In a press release regarding the defections, Kansas Dems are feeling uncharacteristically cock-sure. "These former Republicans join a large field of Democrats running this year, including a full slate of candidates for statewide office, State Board of Education and Congress. We welcome these new leaders, as well as all Kansans who are committed to putting the best interests of our state first," says KDP Chairman Lawrence Gates.
"That's not terribly uncommon, historically," confesses Haider-Markel, not meaning to burst the KDP's bubble. "If one party's doing better, it increases the pressure to switch parties, especially if you've always been a person that doesn't always go along with the party line."
The KDP's churlish glee about the converts may not entirely be spin-miestering donkey dung, however.
"It's been almost 10 years since you've seen such a configuration of forces that would suggest people should switch parties. The last time we had a big bias toward one party or another like this was 1994, when the Republicans took back the House," says Haider-Markel. And this time, "Democrats are far more mobilized to vote."
Suggest that sort of political calculus to Kent Goyen, and he bristles at even being labeled a politician. "I'm just a guy who wants good government and good things for the state."
Kent has a meat and potatoes platform of improving education and bringing more jobs to Kansas. A platform, he thinks, that runs contrary to the Kansas Republicans' obsessive compulsion for divisive social issues (i.e., Guns, God, Gays and Darwin).
"They just seem to be fairly intolerant of anything that doesn't meet their goals," he says. "You can't legislate morality. You're never gonna solve anything and so far as I'm concerned you waste a lot of time."
Haider-Markel thinks that this rift in the Republican Party on the hot-button topics is driving many moderates into the arms of the Democrats.
"A lot of it is the social issues," he says. "They feel that the conservatives aren't very tolerant of their view-points. Partly because the moderates don't even want to really deal with these social issues. They're not motivated to be public servants because of these issues, whereas many of the conservatives are."
Perhaps the primary reason for Kent's party switch - and maybe the eight others: Mark Parkinson, Paul Morrison, Steve Lukert, Cindy Neighbor, Duane Mathes, current Abilene city commissioner Judy Leyerzapf, Walt Chappell, and Brenton Weeks - is some good old-fashioned, Free State populism.
"We used to elect statesmen. We don't elect statesmen anymore. Not that I'm going to count myself as a statesman. But, anymore, it seems like we've got to elect 'Democrats' or 'Republicans'. And that's not the way it should be. That's part of the reason for the party switch, too. To get some more people involved and so you can get a choice," Kent says.
From the deepest, reddest heart of Republican Kansas, this neo-Democrat adds, "We forget that the government is us."