But is the National Democratic Party smart enough to take advantage of this opportunity to make gains all across the country? To start, national Democratic leadership has for too long totally ignored many rural states. As a result, they have lost close to all of the Democratic representation that got elected in an earlier time. When I was active, not just Kansas but all our surrounding states had Democratic members in their Congressional delegations. Today there are no Democrats representing Nebraska, Kansas, or Oklahoma. Not since Howard Dean and his Fifty State Strategy have we had much focus outside of the traditionally Democratic states. It will be interesting if this changes for 2018.
In Kansas, in my opinion, Governor Joan Finney (1991-1995) was the last Democratic candidate for statewide office to actually work the entire state. She didn’t win that many rural counties (just as I didn’t in two elections), but she didn’t get beat too badly, which made it possible to win statewide. In recent statewide elections, the campaign focus has been on the few heavily populated counties while almost totally ignoring the 90 plus counties that are heavily rural. Every vote does count. For Democrats to win in Kansas, they must get back to working the entire state. When they do, I suspect in time they will also elect more Democrats from rural counties to the Legislature.
Democrats also have trouble finding the right message and knowing their audience. Framing a message and choosing the right words has never been a real strength for Democrats. They spend far too much time talking to themselves and not near enough to the people they need to reach. For example, in the 2016 Presidential election, millions of struggling Americans were ignored because the campaign didn’t think they would get their votes. Well, if you ignore them, you won’t get their vote for sure. Montana’s two-term Democratic Governor wrote a really good piece about this.
And then there is the issue of litmus tests, where disagreement on one single issue leads to no support, despite positive positions on all the other issues that are key to the future. I understand and respect those who feel that strongly about any given issue. But I would add to the conversation, shouldn’t seeing the big picture in the end prevail? Shouldn’t there be room for regional concerns and individual differences of opinion within a “big tent” party? Having a platform with a strong set of core values to serve as the “North Star” for the party makes sense, but a strict litmus test will make it so that only party hard-liners can be candidates—rather than opening up the field to other sensible, respected community leaders and aspiring public servants, who would work to carry out those values but also enter office with a desire to listen, find common ground, represent their constituents, and solve problems in a way that moves the state and country forward.
A party free of litmus tests would open the door for Democratic representation from all over our state and country. This would increase the reach of the party and create a greater role for Democrats to help shape policy on a wide range of issues. For instance, the issue of abortion illustrates the problem with litmus tests from a policy perspective. In Kansas, without “pro-life” Democrats, there would have been no override of Governor Brownback's tax policy, and—in Washington—the Affordable Care Act would have already been repealed in one of the recent votes, which have required just barely enough Democrats and Republicans to cast their votes in favor of preserving health care for millions of Americans. Each of these votes had huge implications in terms of access to a wide spectrum of health care services, and in the case of the veto override, determining the funding that would be available for our schools, roads, and all the other things Kansans care about at the state level. Often, "wedge issues" are used as a distraction from the important policy decisions at hand, and it will be key for Democrats not to fall into this trap.
So how will 2018 go? It will depend on whether the Democratic leadership and their candidates learn from the past. With the right message taken to the right audiences, and standing for something, it could be a good year for Democrats in Kansas and across the country.