As a lifelong Democrat and a former elected official, I have to admit that all too often the problem has been as much ours as anyone else’s. We’ve had some success over the years that we can point to with some pride, but the reality is we’ve often struggled finding an election season campaign message that resonated and had the candidates and volunteers to carry that message to the people of Kansas. And to be really honest, much of our success in Kansas to this point has come from mistakes made by the Republican Party.
When I look at the party makeup of the Kansas Legislature today, where there are only eight Democratic Senators and twenty-eight House members, something is wrong. Then when you look at where they are from, you find almost no Democratic representation from rural Kansas and none west of 81 Highway. You simply don’t have the balance and competition that could lead to better outcomes when the minority party is so relatively weak compared to the majority.
As you look at the last election results, despite much being at stake and more money than ever to get out the message, the results (machine problems aside) left much to be desired. Looking at some specific areas where Democrats should have really done well, the turnout—particularly in Democratic precincts—was not good. Those who were aware and engaged were very energized, but for some reason, it appears the message left many other voters unmotivated. And the difficulty getting voters to turn out at the polls was compounded by laws that have made it harder to register and vote in our state. I think, in addition, that too often as a minority party we’ve been reluctant to be really clear what we stand for or what we would more specifically do. All too often, it was easier to blast the opposition and stay vague on the alternative.
But for me, I strongly believe the main problem is that for too many years our statewide candidates have not really campaigned statewide. When I ran for office, I ran in all counties across the state. Today, although there are moderate and Democratic voters in every county, there is no Democratic Party presence in 50 of our Kansas counties. Focusing on the heavily populated counties, raising money, and buying television has not been without success. But, by avoiding rural counties, interest from local Democrats declined. Official County Democratic Committees disappeared. Fewer Democrats won locally, and our statewide candidates didn’t just lose there but got clobbered. Now, when someone wants to run in those areas, there is little or no base with which to work and very little organizational structure to mobilize Democratic voters and moderates who want to see a different path forward in Kansas.
From my perspective, Democrats need to borrow from Howard Dean’s “50 State Strategy” and develop and implement a “105 County Strategy” for the Democratic Party of Kansas. A broader Democratic Party in all areas of the state could over time help return Kansas to a more balanced two-party state. My next—and final—post in this series will discuss more specifically what it will take to turn things around in our state.