Gwyn Mellinger: Kansas politics is not in mainstream

11/16/2012 4:51 PM

11/16/2012 4:51 PM

Here on the plain, anchored in the wash of neon red on the U.S. electoral map, some Kansans feel insulated and others feel isolated from the outcome of the 2012 general election, which returned a Democrat to the White House and failed to give Republicans control of the U.S. Senate.

Neither perspective serves the state’s best interests. By imagining ourselves as beyond the reach of national trends, Kansans of all stripes forfeit the opportunity to participate in the political conversation that is shaping policy at the national level and in states across the country.

The state’s political parties are no help. Kansas Democrats lack the vision and voice to capitalize on widespread concern about Gov. Sam Brownback’s extreme policies on tax cuts and the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans, for their part, want to double down. Indeed, David Kensinger, Brownback’s adviser, told the conservative Wichita Pachyderm Club that the national GOP should follow the example of the Kansas party in order to win elections.

Any hope that Kansas Republicans might have sensed a change in the national mood after Nov. 6 further dissipated when Brownback nixed the state insurance commissioner’s plan to enter into a federal-state partnership for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. As a result, the federal government will be running our insurance exchange.

Three other election outcomes also suggest that Kansas is on the sidelines of national trends. First, during this election cycle, the issue of abortion rights came to the fore, largely the result of uncompromising positions articulated by Republican candidates in Missouri and Indiana who believe abortion should be outlawed even in cases of rape. Suddenly, national outrage was focused on a position that is accommodated by the Kansas GOP platform.

Similarly, the GOP platform is at odds with apparent momentum in favor of marriage equality. Since 1998, voters in 30 states, including Kansas, have erected barriers to same-sex marriage. But on Nov. 6, even as voters in Salina and Hutchinson hewed to this pattern by rejecting calls to add sexual orientation to those cities’ anti-discrimination policies, voters elsewhere may have turned the tide.

A final issue that sets us apart is the move by voters in two states to decriminalize recreational marijuana. That one of those states, Colorado, shares a border with Kansas makes this a particularly salient issue for us. It’s unlikely, however, that Kansas’ political leaders will have the foresight to exploit the revenue opportunity that is staring them in the face, even as other states are sure to follow in taxing legal marijuana sales.

Instead, we’ll be the state whose lawmen patrol I-70 looking to arrest eastbound travelers transporting small quantities of marijuana across our border, on the way home from ski vacations.

But these are just a handful of examples. As Kansans reflect on the recent election, it’s in our best interests to consider possibilities that seem counterintuitive within the Kansas frame of reference. What the Nov. 6 election told us is that we are not in the American mainstream and that opportunities to influence the political and policy conversations are passing us by.

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