Opinion Columns & Blogs

H. Edward Flentje: Hope for Democrats?

Kansas Democrats have a few openings on which to build a competitive party.
Kansas Democrats have a few openings on which to build a competitive party.

Democrats were swept for the most part in midterm elections, both nationally and across Kansas. But Kansas Democrats have a few openings on which to build a competitive opposition party.

Election results were not unexpected, as the party of the president consistently loses ground in midterm elections and these losses are heightened in a president’s sixth year in office, as voters weigh in on his performance.

Nationally, Democrats lost nine seats and majority control in the U.S. Senate; they lost 13 seats in the U.S. House, a number that may grow as one seat is still undecided.

Across the 50 states, Democrats lost four gubernatorial seats and gained one. One Republican seat (Alaska) went to an independent candidate.

Republicans gained outright majority control in 11 additional state legislative chambers, now holding 68 of 98 partisan chambers, an all-time high for the party. (Nebraska’s nonpartisan unicameral chamber is not included in this count.)

Republicans now hold the governorship and both legislative chambers in 23 states, compared with seven for the Democrats. Those seven are on the East or West coasts, except for Vermont.

In Kansas, Republicans swept all statewide offices and congressional seats and picked up four additional seats in the Kansas House, and will hold a commanding 97-28 majority in the lower house. The Kansas Senate remains 32-8 in Republican favor, as Senate seats were not up for election.

Even in the face of this red-wave election, Gov. Sam Brownback continues to offer Democrats an opening by taking the Kansas Republican Party out of the political mainstream. Democrats Paul Davis and Jill Docking, supported by their party chairwoman Joan Wagnon, ran a competitive centrist campaign, built alliances with moderate Republicans and political independents, and came within a couple percentage points of making Brownback a one-term governor in one of the reddest states in the nation.

Democrats may have to think about when and how to disconnect from their national party. The ties of leading Kansas Democrats to an unpopular president presented a dilemma in the 2014 campaign and may have been too much to overcome. In this regard Democrats may want to revisit how the late Gov. Bob Docking detached from his party’s presidential nominee, George McGovern, in 1972.

Democrats may also have to become a more agile and opportunistic opposition party, guided more by pointing out Republican missteps, of which there are many, than by issues. The ideological path of Brownback and his legislative allies often leaves them unhooked from reality. In state finance, for example, Brownback gave Kansans spending figures that were $2 billion off the mark, repeatedly and erroneously claimed state balances of a few hundred dollars when he entered office, and incredibly asserted that he knew nothing about a $700 million hole in the state budget until after the election.

Finally, Democrats have to figure out how to compete in territory outside of central Wichita and the I-70 corridor (Kansas City to Manhattan), where 33 of their party’s 36 legislative seats are located. Party officials may want to look west, as governors Docking and Joan Finney did, in selecting party leadership and to re-engage, for example, someone like former House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney of Greensburg.

So, after another midterm election with disappointing results, Kansas Democrats would be wise to reset and consider how to become more nimble and competitive in opposing Brownback Republicans in a deep red state.

H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.

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