Commentators and political scientists across the country have touted last week’s Kansas primary election results as a dark omen for incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback. GOP challenger Jennifer Winn’s shoestring campaign managed to rack up more than 90,000 votes, or 37 percent of the vote.
A lack of exit polls makes it difficult to know if conservatives voted against Brownback for his flirtation with Obamacare grants, support of candidates such as Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., over Milton Wolf (who ran to Roberts’ right) or other “establishment” Republican tendencies, or if moderate Republicans were protesting Brownback’s more conservative policies. In any case, winning 63 percent of the vote was not a sign of electoral strength.
All this is good news for Democrat gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis. But primary day also exposed a structural weakness that may make Davis’ bid for the governorship come up short: turnout.
Democrats have long struggled with a smaller, more-conservative midterm electorate. In contrast to the huge Democratic turnout in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, the 2010 midterms failed to get many Obama Democrats to the polls. The past three U.S. House elections show a marked contrast in partisan turnout:
2008 – 53.2 percent Democratic, 42.6 percent Republican.
2010 – 44.9 percent Democratic, 51.7 percent Republican.
2012 – 48.8 percent Democratic, 47.6 percent Republican.
Republicans saw a 10 million vote drop from presidential to midterm years – a very large number. But there was a staggering 23 million vote reduction for Democrat candidates in 2010 versus 2008 and 2012.
The phenomenon appeared in last week’s Kansas primary. The election featured contested U.S. Senate races in both major parties. The four-way Republican Senate race fetched more than 260,000 votes, and the two-way Democrat race saw fewer than 65,000 votes.
There are mitigating factors to consider. The money spent on the Republican side far outpaced the Democrat race, and there is a feeling that no Democrat would win the Senate general election, thus dampening enthusiasm among Kansas Democrats. But a 400 percent turnout advantage in the primary speaks to general voter intensity.
The Davis campaign will count on its campaign war chest, state budget concerns, and a motivated educational establishment to drive voters to the polls. Still, hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign spending and the threat of losing the House to the Republicans were not enough to keep the speaker’s gavel in the hands of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., four years ago.
The one very successful Democratic midterm in recent times was in 2006, when the Democrats flipped 30 House seats. But this also could forecast trouble for Davis. The 2006 election was the fourth and final election of the George W. Bush era. True to historical norm, the “second-term midterm” was disastrous for the president’s party.
Voters disappointed with foreign policy missteps and who had a low opinion of the economy rejected dozens of candidates from the president’s party. Sound familiar?
Davis’ party and support for an increasingly unpopular incumbent president put him on the historically short end of the electoral stick. It’s no surprise that the Republican Governors Association is filling the airwaves with ads that highlight Davis’ support for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
So while Winn’s 37 percent means trouble for Brownback, the Kansas electoral eight ball says, “All signs point to low turnout.” That may doom the surprisingly strong Davis campaign.
Joseph Ashby hosts “The Joseph Ashby Show” on KQAM 1480-AM.