Prairie Politics

Kansas Democratic Party chairman: ‘We are red state Democrats’

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The Kansas Democratic Party is not changing its name, says state chairman Larry Meeker, but it is recrafting its message to differentiate itself from the national party in a Republican-dominated state.

The Eagle asked the Kansas Democratic Party last week about rumors that it was considering changing its name to “Red State Democrats” as a way to appeal to Republican and independent voters. The party said no name change was in the works.

The Kansas City Pitch reported Tuesday evening that the party was indeed weighing the name change and that it was being pushed by Meeker, who was elected state party chair in March.

Meeker said the Pitch misunderstood and that no name change was being considered. He said the word “Kansas” is the most important part of the party’s name, but he also confirmed the party was in the process of working on its message to appeal to voters in a red state.

“We are red state Democrats. 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,” Meeker said. “So the question becomes, how do we convey that …and we’re trying to convey that in how we message. Convey, if you will, a kind of pickup line.”

Steve Vockrodt of the Pitch said he stood by his story.

Meeker said Kansas Democrats are more fiscally conservative than their peers in other states. “A Democrat in Kansas would qualify as a moderate Republican in California, Massachusetts,” he quipped.

He also wants to avoid a hard stance 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.

“Quite frankly, the Democratic Party in Kansas is the pro-life party. We believe in healthcare for pregnant women, we believe in healthcare for young children…That’s pro-life,” he continued. “The Republican Party is simply pro-birth.”

Meeker’s messaging hasn’t been embraced by all members of his party.

“Chairman Meeker was elected five months ago. I would’ve expected by now that he would’ve read the party platform,” said Tom Witt, a member of the state’s party executive committee and executive director for the gay rights organization Equality Kansas.

Witt, who chairs the state party’s progressive caucus, noted that support for same-sex marriage is in the party’s platform.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, the most senior Democratic official in the state with 39 years in the Legislature, 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, who nominated Meeker for party chair. He said the primary role of the state chairman should be to register new voters and raise money for the next election.

Meeker’s push to rebrand the party as more conservative has inspired criticism from the left and mockery on the right. The Daily Kos, a liberal blog, said Meeker’s message “looks far too much like a white flag of surrender.”

Kelly Arnold, the state Republican chair, joked about his Democratic counterpart’s efforts on social media.

“Democrats have lost so much relevance in KS they are debating changing their name of the KS Democrat Party,” Arnold tweeted.

However, Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said moving in a more conservative direction could be a smart strategy for Kansas Democrats. He said former Democratic Govs. George and Robert Docking each positioned themselves as fiscal conservatives and found electoral success.

“I think it’s just accepting the reality they live in,” Barker said. “In 1972, you know, Nixon sweeps the country, but Bob Docking holds Kansas.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.