TOPEKA — Kansas Democrats pondered Saturday how to rebuild after last year's elections but found encouragement in a rally that brought hundreds of people to the Statehouse to show support for the party's union allies.
Democratic activists and elected officials from across the state gathered in Topeka for Washington Days, the party's biggest annual convention. The Democratic State Committee unanimously selected former state Revenue Secretary Joan Wagnon as the party's new state chairwoman.
She follows Larry Gates, an Overland Park attorney, who was chairman for eight years, and she promised to travel the state to nurture local party organizations and recruit candidates, particularly for the Legislature.
She acknowledged that Republicans prospered last year by exploiting voter discontent with Washington and tying Kansas Democrats at all levels to President Obama.
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"I think we saw a lot of backlash against Obama, and quite frankly, the Republicans outflanked us," she said. "We have to reshape our message a little bit."
For many Democrats, the "Save the American Dream" rally Saturday represented a start toward rebuilding the party.
Progressive groups and unions organized such events across the nation to support public employee unions in Wisconsin, which are fighting Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to strip them of most collective bargaining rights.
Kansas Republicans last year swept all statewide and congressional races and increased their legislative majorities. Rally speakers suggested the result was an extreme-right, anti-worker state government.
"I don't think it's any secret that the Democratic base wasn't energized in the 2010 elections," state House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said after the rally. "The Republicans are doing a great job of rallying our base."
Several hundred people participated.
Chuck Tribble, an Overland Park truck driver and International Brotherhood of Teamsters member, was impressed by a fiery pro-union speech from state Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka.
"They need to come out here today when stuff like this is going on, and be with us," he said. "I'm ready. I'd stand with them in a moment."
But Ashley McMillan, the Kansas Republican Party's executive director, was skeptical that Democrats can reconnect with Kansas voters. She said voters will assess GOP officials on how well they create jobs and revive the economy.
Rally speakers described Walker's proposal on collective bargaining in Wisconsin as part of a national attack on workers' rights.
"I'm a crazy, red-blooded Kansan that says, 'We must stand together,' " said rally speaker Teresa Molina, a Wichita high school Spanish teacher and board president of advocacy group Sunflower Community Action.