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Kansas Democratic Party’s election focus is wooing moderate Republicans

  • Eagle Topeka bureau
  • Published Saturday, March 8, 2014, at 8:48 p.m.

— Democrats say they think they have a shot at the title this year.

At the party’s convention Saturday, Democratic leaders expressed confidence about the party’s chances to win the governor’s race – with House Minority Leader Paul Davis – plus a few House seats in November’s election.

Their strategy is simple: Convince moderate Republicans dissatisfied with the conservative wing of the GOP that they have a place underneath the Democratic Party’s big tent.

This strategy was clear when party vice chairman Lee Kinch welcomed attendees to lunch: “Good morning, fellow Democrats. And good morning, thoughtful, moderate Republicans.”

The crowd consisted mostly of Democratic activists, but there were a few Republicans among the more than 300 people attending the convention at the Ramada Topeka Downtown Hotel.

Fred Gatlin, who formerly represented Atwood in the Legislature, said when he left office in 1996, he was considered a conservative. But now he feels disconnected from his party.

“My values are probably closer to here than they are to the Republican Party right now,” Gatlin said.

Gatlin, who co-chairs Republicans for Davis, said that cuts made to state agencies during the first three years of Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration have left agencies in crisis. He also worries about the state’s capability to pay its bills in the future under its current tax plan.

Most U.S. voters are politically moderate, and when the political pendulum swings as far as it did in Kansas in 2012, it tends to swing back, said Melvin Kahn, a Democrat and political science professor from Wichita State University who attended the convention.

“I think that’s what’s happening now. We’ve gone so darn far to the right, a lot of people, Republicans themselves, realize it’s just extremism run rampant,” Kahn said.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said the Republican Party’s push to the right has left the middle wide open for Democrats.

“I believe it’s made it clearer to all Kansans that we are and have always been the party of common sense,” he said.

Dakota Loomis, spokesman for the Kansas Democratic Party, said moderate Republicans share the same focus and values as most Democrats in the state. He said the party’s focus is on whether kids have good schools and their parents have good jobs.

“Moderate Republicans and Kansas Democrats, really, there’s about a hair-width of difference. It’s just the moderate Republicans haven’t figured out they’re Democrats in Kansas,” Loomis said.

Switching teams

Perhaps no candidate better represents the party’s intention to capture the votes of disaffected moderates than Jean Schodorf, the former Republican senator from Wichita who was ousted in a primary battle by Michael O’Donnell in 2012.

Schodorf, now a Democrat, hopes to unseat Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

She said she felt targeted for being independent as a Republican and enjoys being on a new team.

“It’s great. It’s the best thing I ever did, because I felt like an outsider in my own state,” Schodorf said.

Although she trailed Kobach among Kansas voters 41 to 34 percent in a February poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, Schodorf was brimming with confidence at the convention.

“We’re going to sweep. The Democrats are going to sweep state offices,” she said.

Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, was unconcerned by Schodorf‘s prediction.

“She lost the Republican primary for Congress. Then she lost the Republican primary for her Senate seat,” Barker said in a phone call. “Then she switched parties, so I don’t think she has a lot of momentum or traction.”

‘Very clear choice’

In prepared remarks he was to deliver to the convention Saturday evening, Davis attacked Brownback for a lack of bipartisanship and opened his arms to disaffected Republicans.

“Republicans and independents have a home in our campaign. And they will have a home in my administration,” Davis said. “They have been abandoned by this governor. And they want to restore Kansas just as much as we do.

“This election is not about putting a Democrat in the governor’s office. It’s about putting a commonsense Kansan in the governor’s office.” Davis promised to focus on education and the economy.

David Kensinger, who chairs Brownback’s political action committee, is confident that the governor can stave off a challenge from Davis. He also argued that the economy will be a winning issue for Republicans rather than Democrats.

“I think there’s a very clear choice here between a Republican approach, which says we’re going to grow the economy and add jobs, and Democratic approach, which says we’re going to grow the government,” Kensinger said in a phone call.

“And Kansans are pretty clear where they come down on that, and they come down on the model that works.”

Barker confirmed that Republicans are taking the challenge posed by Davis seriously.

“I think the governor’s campaign is the premier race. There’s no other race where the Democrats have as solid and well-resourced a candidate as they do in the governor’s race, and that can be the tipping point in some other House races,” Barker said.

“There’s a lot of battleground districts, and the governor’s race can make a difference in the turnout,” he said. He estimated that about 20 House districts could swing to either party.

Loomis said that much of the Democratic Party’s efforts would be concentrated in Sedgwick and Johnson counties.

Cautiously optimistic

There was a lot of excitement about the party’s chances at the Ramada this weekend, but some Democrats were trying to measure their optimism.

“I’m living in Kansas as a Democrat. I’m never confident,” said Jim Lawing, a 77-year-old Wichita attorney who has been attending Washington Days regularly since 1970 and was elected to one term in the House in 1974.

Lawing is worried about the fundraising advantage that Republicans will have but said he hasn’t seen this much excitement about the governor’s race in years.

There’s also the question about whether by moving toward the middle, Democrats might risk losing some of their base. Loomis and others in the party said that would not be an issue.

“I’m not going to forget about the base,” said Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita. “The base is who elected me, and so I’m their lobbyist.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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