Guest Commentary

Winners and losers in Wichita’s mayoral primary

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The mayoral primary is over; let’s run through some of the winners and losers here:

Winner: State Rep. Brandon Whipple. He was the first major challenger to Mayor Jeff Longwell to announce his candidacy, and as a longtime state representative, with a strong basis of support in his south Wichita legislative district and a record as a moderate Democrat, he had good name recognition and media exposure from the start. But of the three major candidates, he raised the least amount of money. With Longwell and Lyndy Wells outspending him, and with the distraction of the small but sometimes angry fight between different factions in the local Democratic party, he probably had reason to worry about voter turnout. In the end, though, the hard work of Whipple and his team paid off.

Losers: Certain Democrats. Of course, city elections are officially nonpartisan — but party politics remains central to connecting with voters. And people invested making those connections always have their own opinions and priorities. In this election, there was a small — almost entirely behind the scenes — but bitter fight over whose priorities would guide those connections.

The dividing line between the Democrats who supported Whipple and those who supported Wells or even Longwell (both of whom are Republicans) was unpredictable — hence my reference to “certain” Democrats. Some of the animosity was ideological, some of it was generational, and a lot of it was personal. However you analyze it, though, it is undeniable that going into the general election, certain — not many, but definitely a few — Democrats will be feeling angry, embarrassed or frustrated; whether they stay on the sidelines, jump ship or join Team Whipple is unknown.

Winner: Getting out the vote. GOTV operations are inseparable from mass political parties throughout American history; yet, every single election cycle over the past 20 years someone makes the argument that the ground-game of politics is passe. Certainly it’s easy to be convinced by expensive advertising campaigns, by the omnipresence of social media and by massive party polarization, that the day of door-knocking is over.

This small election is evidence against that thesis. Longwell had the advantage of incumbency and his record as mayor to promote, and Wells enjoyed the endorsement of many major players throughout Wichita (including this newspaper). The big money and “establishment” narratives were mostly on their sides. But GOTV cares little about narratives; it cares about making sure potential voters are “touched” by campaign workers directly, again and again. That operation enabled Whipple to squeak by Wells, and advance to challenge Longwell.

Winner and Loser: Mayor Jeff Longwell. Obviously he’s not really a loser: he was one of the two winners of the primary, and the one with the most votes — 32%, compared to Whipple’s 26%. But nonetheless: his record as mayor inspired a major challenger from within his own political party, and he had the support of only a third of primary voters. True, he can look back at his 2015 primary win, when he advanced with 28% of the vote and went on to be elected mayor. But in that case, he wasn’t the incumbent. By comparison, incumbent mayor Carl Brewer won 77% of the vote in the 2011 primary, before cruising to re-election, while incumbent mayor Carlos Mayans came out of the 2007 primary with 26% of the vote and lost.

None of this takes away the advantages Longwell clearly enjoys. But looking at the results on Tuesday night, I suspect he didn’t feel quite like as much of a winner as he could have been.

Dr. Russell Arben Fox is a professor of political science at Friends University.