Politics & Government

DemoFest to focus on gaining seats in Legislature, influence in Kansas politics

With a new Democratic Party chairman and executive director, the annual DemoFest in Wichita is taking a new and more tactical direction.

Past DemoFests have highlighted the party’s Kansas officeholders and standard bearers, such as Kathleen Sebelius, Mark Parkinson, Dan Glickman and Paul Davis. This year, the DemoFest’s two main speakers are national-level political professionals, and the tone is more about breaking Republican dominance in the state.

The keynote speaker, former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, said he thinks Democrats can reverse their recent ill fortune in Kansas by recruiting more candidates who match their districts and mobilizing ordinary citizens to knock on doors, make phone calls and post on social media.

“It’s not fancy,” Schauer, who has won state and congressional offices in Republican-leaning districts in his home state of Michigan, said of the suggested strategy. “It’s hard work layered on the foundation of professional, disciplined campaigns.”

Kansas Democrats should focus on issues such as tax equity – the balance of taxation between businesses and working families – and strengthening public schools, he said.

“Democrats need to speak to those priorities in a sustained way,” he said. “I believe through that process, Kansas Democrats will make gains in the state Legislature.”

Schauer heads Advantage 2020, a project of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, working to help Democrats gain control of more state legislatures and affect the redrawing of electoral districts that takes place every 10 years. By carefully drawing legislative and congressional districts, parties can maximize their power and minimize opponents’.

For example, in Michigan, 51 percent of voters voted for Democrats for the state House in 2014, but Republicans won 59 seats to the Democrats’ 50.

Kansas districts were drawn by a federal court because the 2010 Legislature was unable to reach agreement on a new redistricting plan. The gridlock resulted mainly from disagreement between conservative and moderate Republican lawmakers over where the lines should be drawn.

Most of the Senate moderates were subsequently voted out of office or left voluntarily, giving conservatives near-full control of the Statehouse.

Democrats now hold fewer than a fourth of the seats in the Legislature but are hoping to expand their numbers and gain a larger role the next time the district lines are drawn.

“2020 is kind of a goal we’re looking at,” party executive director Kerry Gooch said.

The change in focus is coming under the party’s new state leadership of Gooch and chairman Larry Meeker.

Despite some public reports, the party is not planning to change its name to “Red State Democrats” to appeal to Republicans and independents.

However, Meeker said he does want to take the party in that political direction.

“We are red state Democrats,” he said. “You’d have to agree to that. We’re Democrats in a red state. It’s not a statement of marketing. It’s a statement of fact. And we are more conservative than many Democrats, and that is a fact.”

He said he wants to highlight the party’s fiscal conservatism relative to blue-state Democrats and avoid hard stances on social issues.

“We have within our Democratic Party people who are pro-life and pro-choice, anti-gay marriage and for gay marriage,” Meeker said.

Not everybody’s buying in, and Meeker’s plan is putting him at odds with the state’s longest-serving Democratic lawmaker. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, called the rebranding idea unnecessary and said it “really has been a waste of time.”

“What we need to do as Democrats is stand by our own issues and values,” said Hensley, a 39-year veteran of the Legislature who had nominated Meeker for party chairman. He said that the primary role of the state chairman should be to register new voters and raise money for the next election.

In addition to state Legislature tactics, the Democrats who will assemble Friday and Saturday at the Wichita Marriott Hotel will work on building stronger connections with young voters and expanding voter registration in an era of strict voter ID laws.

The Saturday lunch speaker at DemoFest will be Pratt Wiley, director of voter protection/expansion for the Democratic National Committee.

Democrats have fought efforts by Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach to institute some of the nation’s toughest requirements for proof of citizenship when registering to vote and for showing photo identification to cast a ballot.

In addition to the two main speakers, DemoFest will feature caucus meetings and campaign training, along with a Friday night reception.

As in past years, all DemoFest activities except the two Saturday meals will be free and open to the public. Meals may be purchased in advance through the DemoFest 2015 Facebook page or at the event.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.