Elections

Bernie Sanders wins over Kansas Democrats (+videos)

Kansas Democrats converge at caucus site

While backing different candidates at the caucus, the gathering of Kansas Democrats at Coleman Middle School was more like a large family picnic.
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While backing different candidates at the caucus, the gathering of Kansas Democrats at Coleman Middle School was more like a large family picnic.

Riding a wave of younger and newer voters through a crowded and chaotic caucus, Bernie Sanders cruised to an easy victory over Hillary Clinton in Saturday’s Democratic balloting in Kansas.

Sanders won by slightly more than a 2-1 ratio, with 26,450 votes to Clinton’s 12,593. Sanders is projected to get 23 national convention delegates to Clinton’s 10.

It was a much-needed victory for Sanders, who trails Clinton in the national delegate count that will decide which Democrat will advance to the Nov. 8 general election.

Moments after the announcement, the Sanders campaign issued a statement thanking the state.

“People used to ask, ‘What’s the matter with Kansas?’ ” Sanders said in the statement. “It turns out that there’s nothing the matter with Kansas when you give people a clear choice and involve them in the democratic process.”

The race was a classic confrontation between heart and head.

And this time, heart won.

Sanders supporters sang the praises of the Vermont senator’s lofty policy positions: a $15 minimum wage, crackdown on the banking system that caused the recent recession, tuition-free state college education and full inclusion in society for gay people.

“I’m a big advocate of socialized medicine and a big advocate of peace,” said Jack Silvers, a real estate agent and one of the most vocal Sanders supporters at the Wichita State University caucus site.

Clinton supporters said they like those things, too, but they were more likely to cite experience and electability as their reasons for backing the former first lady, senator and secretary of state.

She’s laying out plans as to what can really be done as opposed to pie-in-the-sky wish it could be done.

Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, who caucused for Hillary Clinton

“She’s laying out plans as to what can really be done as opposed to pie-in-the-sky wish it could be done,” said former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, who caucused for Clinton at WSU.

High turnout

Hours after a spirited Republican convention began with personal appearances by GOP front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the Democrats, not to be outdone, swamped their caucus sites with lines of voters stretching for blocks.

Turnout was the surprise story of the day Saturday, driven by a huge number of first-time caucus participants, those who switched parties and new Democrat registrants.

While backing different candidates at the caucus, the gathering of Kansas Democrats at Coleman Middle School was more like a large family picnic.

The turnout of 40,000 Democratic voters exceeded the last big Democratic caucus day, the 2008 edition that featured Clinton and Barack Obama. Just under 37,000 Democrats voted in that caucus.

Whitney Middendorf, a 22-year-old Sanders supporter from Mulvane, was one of those first-time caucus-goers. She traveled 30 miles to vote at Apollo Elementary School near Goddard, the designated site for her state Senate district.

“I am amazed,” she said, looking at the large crowd of waiting voters. “I wasn’t expecting this many, especially for my district.”

Seemingly endless lines led to long delays and forced on-site caucus leaders to come up with creative solutions, such as allowing vote-and-go balloting, a rarity in the town-meeting-style Democratic caucus process. Several sites moved their meetings outdoors into the 70-degree sunshine to get enough room for everybody to participate.

“Thank God it’s a beautiful day, and God is on our side,” said Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita. “We should have done a better job of picking our buildings. I just think we underestimated the turnout.”

Despite the nice day, the wait to vote began to wear on voters.

“Our baby’s eaten three meals here,” said Elizabeth Anderson of Wichita, who came to the caucus with husband Ben Blankley and their baby, Antonio.

Enthusiastic supporters

At the CAC theater at Wichita State University, roughly equal groups of Clinton and Sanders supporters energetically chanted back and forth at each other, Clinton’s side shouting slogans like “I’m with her,” countered by “Feel the Bern” from the Sanders side.

He’s real. He’s not part of the status quo. He’s a wrench in the monkey works of the establishment.

Mitch Cameron, a disabled Marine Corps veteran who supports Bernie Sanders

“He (Sanders) is the only candidate worth even considering,” said Mitch Cameron, a disabled Marine Corps veteran, now retired. “He’s real. He’s not part of the status quo. He’s a wrench in the monkey works of the establishment.”

Susan Meyer of Wichita showed up in a Clinton shirt with two stickers reading “Ready for Hillary.”

“I’m ready for the most knowledgeable and experienced of any of the candidates on either side,” she said. “She is fighting for the underdog.”

About a half-hour after the caucus was supposed to start, organizers at the WSU site bowed to the inevitable and moved the meeting outdoors on the lawn, where the chanting and counter-chanting continued.

But the noise and arguing fell silent as voters from both sides marveled as Leroy Rolfe, 93 and turning 94 on Monday, cast his ballot in full World War II uniform. Medals, including the Purple Heart, jangled on his chest.

Rolfe is blind and walks with a cane, the result of a wound he suffered as a soldier. He was a sergeant and gunner in the 92nd Division, an all-black unit known as the “Buffalo Division,” the successors to the black “buffalo soldiers” who helped tame the American West. He’s voted in every presidential election since casting his first ballot for Franklin Roosevelt.

A native of Arkansas, Rolfe voted for Clinton, the state’s former first lady.

“I got to stick with the Arkansas girl, Miss Hillary,” he said.

‘Good for everyone’

Most Sanders voters chided Clinton backers for being too tied to the status quo and too timid in their ambitions to change the country.

John Frailey, a 36-year-old who works in construction, said people should focus on Sanders’ policies instead of getting hung up on the senator’s self-described “democratic socialism.”

“If people really listen to his platform and his ideas, they’re good for everyone. It’s not for some of us, it’s for everyone.”

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders turned out in force Saturday, including in west Wichita, to propel the Vermont senator to victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Kansas Democratic caucus. (March 5, 2016)

Asked about doubts regarding Sanders’ electability, Eliot Eichbauer, who stumped for Sanders at Coleman Middle School, motioned to a gymnasium full of Sanders supporters signing their names. The Clinton side was nearly empty by then.

“The electability argument is not a factor in my decision, because he is electable if the people who support him support him,” Eichbauer said.

Mary Allen, a 57-year-old substitute teacher, praised how Sanders has been able to “re-energize the Democratic voter and to bring people into the party.”

She supports Sanders even though she has doubts about whether all his goals are achievable.

“I don’t think it’s all necessarily possible, but we have to try,” Allen said.

Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University, said Sanders’ victory shows again he performs better in caucuses than primary elections, a running theme of the race for the nomination so far.

That theme carried forward elsewhere Saturday, with Sanders winning the Nebraska caucus and Clinton winning the Louisiana primary.

But while Sanders supporters celebrated Saturday, he still has a long way to go to catch up with Clinton in the delegate count, and not a lot of ways to do it, Rackaway said.

“Sanders still has no clear path to the nomination, and I expect Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee,” he said.

‘We’re all friends’

While the earlier Republican caucus had a hard-edged, take-no-prisoners atmosphere – for example, hundreds of Cruz supporters walked out when Trump started speaking – the Democrats’ caucuses were more like an argument at a family picnic.

Middendorf’s friend, 22-year-old Brandi McDonough, sat on the opposite side of the gymnasium at Apollo school, supporting Clinton. McDonough said Sanders’ democratic socialism platform is “not something I would stand for.”

“He is taking from the rich, basically, and dividing equally, and Hillary is not doing that,” she said. “I don’t find that as an American value. (Clinton) is just continuing what (Barack Obama) did, and I’m happy. I think he did great.”

But she said she’ll support Sanders if he emerges as the party’s nominee.

“My boyfriend’s a Bernie supporter, and it’s cool – there’s no animosity at all,” she said. “We’re all friends. We’re all working for the same goals, even though we’re a little different on how we’re going to get there.”

Feelings were much the same on the Sanders side.

At WSU, moments after calling Clinton an establishment sellout, Silvers conceded, “If it’s Hillary against Trump, (Marco) Rubio or Cruz, then I’ll vote for Hillary.”

Not to be outdone by Republicans who voted Saturday morning, Democrats swamped presidential caucus sites across Wichita.

Contributing: The Eagle’s Bryan Lowry

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