To expand these numbers and have any real influence, Democrats need to do much much better at identifying and supporting quality Democratic candidates. This will take strong leadership, a willingness to make change, and an understanding that this will not happen in just one election cycle. I know our State Party has a plan to get counties that are not now organized activated, and I strongly support their effort but much more will need to be done.
My push for a more influential Democratic Party is much more than party politics and political gains. It is primarily driven by my concern for the future of Kansas and the fact that the current directions and politics of the far right Republicans do not bode well for the future of our state. We have very serious challenges that must be addressed or our future will continue to be declining population growth, limited opportunities for our young people, and a shortage of jobs and economic viability particularly in many of our rural communities.
For progress, I think there need to be major adjustments with statewide candidate campaigns, which now tend to focus only on just a few of our larger population centers and leaving the bulk of the counties with little or no attention. Over time, this practice has dramatically decreased Democratic political activity in the bulk of Kansas counties. Yes, there has been success electing Democratic Governors (with just a little more effort in rural counties, Kansas could have elected at least one more), but when legislative numbers remain low, the capacity to actually impact key decisions is limited. Today, Democratic legislators come from only seven counties. That did not used to be the case.
For example, starting with the 1956 election of Democratic Governor George Docking and through the tenure of Governor Joan Finney in 1996 (who was the last Democratic Governor to really campaign across the entire state), on average there were 13 Democratic Senators and 55 Democratic House members. During the Docking-Finney time period, our statewide candidates helped create an environment where a Democratic candidate for the Legislature had a chance, regardless of what area they were from. Consequently, Representative Marvin Barkis and myself became Speakers of the House with support from Democrats from every area of the state and, consequently, some good things got done. Since that time, the average numbers have been 10 Democratic Senators and 42 Democratic House members.
I also think candidates often focus too much on delivering messages to the base and not enough reaching out to the voters who Democrats need to win. Beyond political organizing and candidate recruitment, the Democratic Party and its representatives must develop an intentional effort to talk with rural residents and identify ways in which we as a party can address effectively those issues and concerns that affect negatively the sustainability and quality of life in rural Kansas. With the right policy messages, Moderate Republicans and Independents should be good targets for persuasion.
Senator Jon Tester of Montana wrote a book called “Grounded,” which I highly recommend for anyone wondering what Democrats need to do to build support and elect more Democrats. His advice on how to make headway in rural areas that we often choose to avoid is: 1. Show up and not just when asked; 2. Be smart with messaging; and 3. Listen, listen to their concerns and learn more about what is going on in the candidate’s district to understand what their issues really are and do not just rely on some statewide strategy. As Tester said, “there is a reason you have two ears and only one mouth.”
Quoting (page 114) from Molly Ball in her book Pelosi, she instructed her lead recruiter Rahm Emanuel to “find candidates that fit their districts, regardless of ideology.” For example, in 2018, quality Democratic challengers in three conservative Indiana districts were pro-life and pro-gun, but they won. Pelosi took a lot of heat for this approach, but she also was able to become Speaker and be able to pass a more progressive agenda. They recruited candidates to take on kitchen table issues and stand up for working people. Given the minority status Democrats have in Kansas, such advice from Pelosi makes lots of sense. Another example, at the national level some Democrats go after Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia on some of his more conservative positions, but where would we be without him right now? Mitch McConnell would still be Majority Leader, and now think about the real impact that would have on Covid relief and so many other things that need to be done in the coming year. Though it's easy to complain about some of his positions that you may disagree with, a recent piece in the New York Times argues, "Nothing would help Democrats as much as more Joe Manchins." A larger Democratic majority would certainly help, and it would provide more flexibility for certain members to dissent when they felt it was important for their districts. But the only way to make that possible is to elect more Democrats, regardless of where they're from.
At this point, the dominant Republican Party in Kansas can afford to work for purity and still win. Their years of working to eliminate Moderates has been successful, particularly in primaries, because of their huge voter registration advantage and the political strength of the far right. For Democrats, that is not an option, but we often operate like it is. Being pro-life, for example, is too often used to blackball or ignore some good candidates who could win. Keep in mind that pro-life Democrats played a key role in electing two House majorities, two Speakers (Barkis and Carlin), and as far as I know, pro-life Democrats have always voted against crazy unconstitutional abortion amendments. Instead, there is an opportunity for Democrats to make the case that their policies represent a truly “pro-life” position.
What I am sharing is not an anti-progressive move. It is a recognition that ideologically Kansas is a center-right state. Not accepting this reality dooms Democrats to continued disappointment. We need and should welcome progressive legislators to challenge the system and represent the views of their districts, but I want in the end to have enough Democratic votes to take some positive steps forward. The pattern of just working harder, doing that same thing over and over, and expecting better results has not and will not work.
The question now is, are we as a Democratic Party willing to take the time to make key strategic changes necessary to put us in a position of strength to help lead Kansas to a better future? Is now not the opportunity to reach out to more Moderate Republicans, given the shocking time in which we live with so much division in the Republican Party? And as Democrats, if you need more incentive, this action will help local, statewide, and Congressional candidates as well. This could just be the time, if Democrats are willing to make the changes to not just win, but help pass legislation on issues that will truly make a positive difference for our great state. The door is open now, and the party should be willing to accept any Kansan who wants to be part of the solutions to our state's pressing challenges.