Moderate Republicans and Democrats governed Kansas for decades until the end of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ tenure. In the 2010 elections and 2012 primary, Kansas followed a national rightward trend. The rise of the tea party nationally and the arrival of conservative Gov. Sam Brownback in Cedar Crest coincided to produce a right turn in Kansas politics.
But political partisanship is like a pendulum: It always swings back. Perhaps it has already started swinging back.
After the August primary, moderate Republicans and Democrats were in disarray, stunned by the conservative statewide sweep. The moderates had two options: go Democratic or form a new party. Numerous high-profile moderates have recently decided to cast their lot with the Democrats.
Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, a respected longtime moderate, lost to Tom Arpke in August. Rather than sit out the general election, Brungardt endorsed Democrat Janice Norlin.
Sens. Roger Reitz, R-Manhattan, and Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, among other moderates, followed suit. Traditional Republicans for Common Sense released a list of six Republicans and six Democrats the group recommends voters elect in November. An alliance between moderate Republicans and Democrats seems to be building momentum.
Still, changing parties is not as easy as swapping a “D” for an “R” on a voter-registration card. Different campaign support staffs and organizational networks exist that may not trust and support former opponents. Voters may look at the move as the strategy of sore losers. Low-information state House and Senate campaigns may not have the same draw that higher-profile statewide and federal races have. And Republican voter registrations outnumber Democrats by a significant margin in Kansas, making any campaign harder to convince people to vote for them.
Transitions like this take time. Brungardt’s endorsement may help Norlin, and may be enough to make her competitive with Arpke. Even if she loses, though, conservatives may have won the battle but lost the war. The southern shift to Republicans in national politics took more than a decade.
A lesson for moderate Republicans joining Democrats comes – ironically – from Brownback and his conservative allies. By coalescing around Brownback as a strong candidate, conservatives rebuilt a shattered Republican campaign apparatus quickly in 2010 and leveraged its strength in 2012 to remove moderates from their Senate perches. Turnarounds can come quickly, but only with the right candidates and an attractive message.
Republicans also provide a lesson for the message: Unfettered power is dangerous. Just as national Republicans used President Obama’s filibuster-proof Senate against him in 2010, so could Kansas Democrats point out that what Brownback needs in Topeka is a loyal opposition in large enough numbers to hold his administration accountable.
The November elections will determine if moderate Republicans embrace conservatives within their party or shift to the Democrats, but the effects of their decision may take a few elections to elicit.