Like all political conventions, the Kansas state Republican convention Saturday was replete with stirring speeches to motivate the faithful to spend their time and money to elect the party’s candidates in the fall.
But the convention also offered a sneak preview of the strategies that will unfold in coming months as conservatives seek to hold on to the unprecedented political power that Kansas voters gave them in the past two state elections.
And while the candidates schmoozed in their hospitality rooms and in the hallways, breakout sessions offered a rare peek behind the curtain where the real work of changing hearts and minds takes place.
The party’s strategies were outlined by two of the key architects of the conservative takeover of state government: David Kensinger, who heads Gov. Sam Brownback’s political action committee, and Karl Hansen of the Singularis Group. The Overland Park-based campaign consulting firm was instrumental in the 2012 conservative takeover of the state Senate, breaking years of moderate Republican control.
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If there were any moderate Republicans at the convention, they kept a low profile.
While Democrats have pressed efforts to woo Republican moderates to their side, neither Kensinger nor Hansen sees much of a threat there.
Kensinger said that, in 2012, conservative Republicans won nine of the10 general election races they faced after knocking out a moderate Republican in the party primary.
“The most recent data set we have is that did not inhibit Republican electoral success (against Democrats) in the fall,” he said.
Hansen appeared even less concerned about the moderates.
“I think you need only see that they’re no longer around,” he said. “When you’re as closed-minded as they were and were intolerant to any conservative viewpoint, they eventually made themselves irrelevant, because the electorate was clearly moving in a different direction.”
Hansen brought a list of “campaign fails” that can be a big turnoff for voters.
He warned Republicans to steer clear of conspiracy theories, whether they believe in them or not.
For example, he cited the ongoing controversy over Agenda 21, a United Nations program that encourages environmentally sustainable development worldwide.
He offered as a typical case a city government putting in a walking path linking two neighborhoods and a park.
“Well, all of a sudden you get these e-mails that say ‘The U.N. is taking over our neighborhood,’ ” Hansen said.
“It’s a walking path. That sounds kind of nice to most people. And whether it is or isn’t part of this Agenda 21 sustainable development program is irrelevant to most people.”
A better way to oppose the path would be to bring it home for residents and focus the argument on the city taking private property from people’s yards to build it, he said.
“If your first thing out of the box is this is some bizarre conspiracy theory of the U.N. and blue helmets are going to show up in the park you have made that issue now completely irrelevant and made yourself irrelevant. You’ve lost all credibility not only on that issue but on any other issue, because they think you’re a nut.”
The Republicans’ biggest advantage is money, according to Kensinger.
In recent finance reports, Brownback and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, had just short of $2 million on hand – including a $500,000 loan from Colyer to the campaign.
In addition, the party’s incumbent candidates for secretary of state, state treasurer and attorney general had about $540,000 combined.
Their Democratic counterparts had about $810,000, $770,000 of it held by the campaign of House Minority leader Paul Davis, the Democrats’ likely candidate for governor.
But the real advantage comes at the federal level, where the four Kansas representatives to the House and Sen. Pat Roberts – Republicans all – have combined campaign funds of about $7.8 million.
That’s money the Democrats can’t match, and it will benefit all Republican candidates, Kensinger said.
“These are dollars that can be used to help finance (Republican) turnout programs which will be to the immediate benefit of those candidates who are spending that money but that also bring out voters who will help out other Republican candidates on that ticket,” he said.
In contrast, the Democrats are betting their more limited money on Davis and his running mate, Wichita financial consultant Jill Docking, hoping that their coattails will pull along other Democrats.
“The Democratic strategy, pretty clearly here, at least financially at this point, appears to be all-in on one race,” Kensinger said.
So Republicans will be “focusing on the governor’s race for a lot of our efforts, both in persuasion and in terms of motivation.”
On persuasion, Hansen warned Republicans: “Don’t vomit on the voter with a whole bunch of information.”
He said a few simple themes are better. Rule of thumb: “If your message can’t be explained with a crayon, it’s the wrong message.”
Another piece of advice was to express opinions rather than try to impose them on others.
“There are 317 million people in the United States, and guess what? They don’t all agree with you,” he said. “Even if they do, they don’t share your passion, (and) frankly, a lot of people don’t care at the end of the day.”
And finally, he cautioned against blasting away at opponents on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter or forwarding other people’s political posts without checking them for truthfulness.
He noted that anything posted to the social networks never goes away and becomes the property of the networks.
“They own it and they can use it in perpetuity for whatever purpose,” he said. “That’s why you start showing up in ads popping up in your friends’ mailboxes.”
It’s a problem for candidates who can find themselves linked to false, misleading or anger-driven posts put up or passed on by some of their own most passionate, if misguided, supporters.
“If you’re endorsed by some crazy person, that’s going to show up in the ads,” he said.