The insurgent presidential candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders is injecting some unaccustomed energy and uncertainty into Kansas Democratic presidential politics.
As the self-described socialist from Vermont is surging in national polls against the once-seemingly invincible Hillary Clinton, grassroots Kansas Democrats are organizing to try to get him a win in the state’s caucuses in March that will choose their delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
They’ve been holding meetings and campaigning at public events, including the Kansas State Fair this week. And they have an active presence on Facebook locally.
Sedgwick County Democratic Party Chairwoman Terese Shumaker Johnson said Clinton has always had a lot of supporters among Kansas Democrats and it’s been fascinating to “watch them migrate to another candidate.”
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While the county party doesn’t endorse candidates in contested Democratic primaries, Johnson gave a presentation on voter registration at a meeting last week in Wichita where about 40 Berniacs gathered to plan their campaign.
Sanders, possibly the most liberal member of Congress, has pinned his campaign to issues of income inequity, raising the minimum wage, racial injustice and forcing big money out of politics.
“I am really thrilled to see Sanders causing this excitement because he is talking issues,” Johnson said. “What kind of conversations are coming out of that? It certainly beats the heck out of (Republican candidate Donald) Trump and his rallies, or whatever he calls them.”
Russell Fox, a professor of political science at Friends University and a Sanders supporter, said he’s not aware of any polling, but he thinks Sanders is probably about even with Clinton in Kansas.
That would track with polls in Iowa, where Sanders pulled even with Clinton last week.
If the Kansas caucus were held today, “On the basis of what I’m seeing, I’d say it was a toss-up,” Fox said.
So far, there’s been no evidence of any organized movement for Clinton in Kansas. But Vickie Stangl, a freelance writer and former political science instructor at Wichita State University, says don’t count out the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state.
“I’m ready for Hillary,” she said. “I was ready for her back in 2008” when she lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama.
Stangl said she respects Sanders and his commitment to fighting for his causes, but says that Clinton is the one who could actually get things done as president.
“She does the daily grind,” Stangl said. “I feel very comforted and comfortable with that. It seems to me she’s behind the scenes doing the work nobody else wants to do.”
Of the possibility of a Sanders nomination, she said “I hope we don’t mess this up and take down the candidate (Clinton) who is a knight in shining armor compared to everyone else.”
With a small population, late caucuses and Republican dominance of politics at pretty much every level, Kansas is usually not much of a factor in presidential elections. It is near certain that whoever wins the Democratic caucus next year will lose the Kansas vote to whomever emerges from the Republican field.
That may be one reason why Kansas Democrats appear to be so enthralled with Sanders.
“Democrats in Kansas are used to not winning,” Fox said. “It’s exciting to see anyone who can reshuffle the deck.” Also, “They have the freedom to be to the left.”
Possibly the man who’s rooting hardest for Sanders to win the Democratic nomination is Kelly Arnold, chairman of the state Republican Party.
“We would be happy to have Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee here in Kansas,” Arnold said. “I don’t know if you could find anybody else we’d rather have.”
Arnold said he doesn’t think Sanders’ socialist leanings – he supports guaranteed government health care and free college educations for all – will play at all well in conservative Kansas.
“People in Kansas are hard-working,” Arnold said. “They don’t want somebody like Bernie Sanders coming in here raising taxes to give millions of people free stuff.”
Arnold said he thinks the Sanders surge shows Democratic voters are “starting to take a second look at Hillary Clinton.”
“Hillary should be scared, because Bernie is getting a lot of traction,” he said.
Sanders supporters counter that the attraction is in his authenticity and his willingness to swim against the tide in politics.
Mike Patton, a Wichita pest exterminator and a leader in the local Sanders campaign, said he admires Sanders for his integrity, honesty and the direct way he expresses his convictions.
“He’s here to take the political process away from the billionaires and give it to the people,” Patton said. “That’s why I’m for Bernie.”
He described the local campaign as a “grassroots situation where it comes from the bottom up, not the top down.” Although, he notes, “at some point we need to connect with the national Bernie Sanders group.”
State Rep. Gail Finney said she likes Sanders because “he seems to represent the average working person in the U.S.”
“He speaks from the heart. He’s not one of those people getting their speeches from talking points. Also, Finney added, “it seems like he doesn’t have the baggage some of them do.”
While she prefers Sanders, Finney said she won’t be too surprised or disappointed if her fellow Democrats end up selecting Clinton to carry their standard in the 2016 election.
“I will support Hillary when it comes to that time,” she said.
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.