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Chapman Rackaway: Moderate Party faces long odds

  • Published Sunday, August 25, 2013, at 12 a.m.

After the 2012 Republican primary elections, most observers (including me) were ready to carve a headstone marking the death of the Kansas moderate Republican. A resurgent state GOP apparatus rebuilt under conservative leadership methodically consolidated an organizational base, picked off almost all of the moderates still standing in the Kansas Senate, and cemented authority in both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governor’s mansion.

What would become of the voters who preferred moderate Republicans? Had they shifted to the right, meaning that moderates had disappeared? Would moderates shift to the Democrats, making a combination of two minorities to challenge at the newly dominant majority’s heels?

At first, Democrats had the upper hand, attracting high-profile moderate Republicans like former Wichita state Sen. Jean Schodorf. Moderates maintained most of their allegiance to the Republican Party, though, and the exodus never materialized.

Banking on a silent majority of moderates yearning for a home, a group of Kansans are building a new party apparatus. Aaron Estabrook, Rodney Wren, Nick Hoheisel and Dave Warren have founded a Moderate Party of Kansas. Currently operating as a PAC, they are seeking ballot status for 2014. Boldly stating their intent, the Moderates claim that our current situation of one-party, one-faction rule “demands cooperation and compromise,” and they strive to “unite in the heart of the nation to bring balance, reason and pragmatism to Kansas.”

But breaking through two-party dominance is incredibly difficult – just ask Ross Perot or Ralph Nader. The Moderates have to acquire thousands of petition signatures to become officially recognized. Then they have to marshal the resources to recruit and support candidates.

Aiming high, Estabrook announced plans last month to challenge Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., in 2014. Though the tactic earned free press, taking on one of the most respected and popular politicians in Kansas (according to SurveyUSA polls) is the very definition of quixotic. A party can raise and spend a lot of money to only get 27 percent of the vote, stalling out momentum.

Unspoken in the Moderate Party’s ambitious plans are the two political figures who inspire them: Gov. Sam Brownback and Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Brownback is the state’s highest-profile political figure, but a Moderate Party candidate would likely simply split the anti-Brownback vote with the presumptive Democratic nominee, state Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence. Going after Brownback would be almost as much a fool’s errand as going after Roberts, because the governor’s advantages of strategy, money and personnel are significant. Kobach presents an easier, yet still difficult, target.

The Moderates could build themselves from the ground up using selected state representative campaigns to reverse the 2010 and 2012 conservative movement that now dominates the Legislature. Considering the organizational strength of the state GOP, however, any attempt by the Moderates is a David versus Goliath story.

Will the Moderate Party follow in the tradition of the Prohibition Party, which did win seats in the Legislature during its heyday? Or will it suffer the same fate as the Reform Party?

Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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