Big Republican wins and heartbreaking Democratic losses — nothing new in Kansas

Former U.S. Senate nominee Barbara Bollier formed the nonprofit Prairie Roots to work statewide on driving voter turnout in support of progressive candidates and issues. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)
Former U.S. Senate nominee Barbara Bollier formed the nonprofit Prairie Roots to work statewide on driving voter turnout in support of progressive candidates and issues. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas is a complex place — a reality it could have embraced on Tuesday. Instead, it defaulted to its usual self.

We knew Kansas would still be Trump Country on Wednesday morning, and Kansas reinforced that message by sending presidential-parrot Roger Marshall to the U.S. Senate, with Jake LaTurner, Tracey Mann and Ron Estes hammering it home three times in the 1st, 2nd and 4th U.S. House districts.

But other Kansans proved it was not a fluke when they rounded out the state’s Congressional delegation with a lesbian Native American two years ago. In the state’s 3rd Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids defeated Republican challenger Amanda Adkins by 10 points.

We also sent a transgender woman to the Kansas House of Representatives, where Stephanie Byers of Wichita will soon be among (at least) five such lawmakers around the country. As Byers has noted, representation matters. But what those of us who know her are looking forward to watching is how little this retired band teacher’s gender identity will be an issue for most of her fellow legislators when she gets to work on behalf of public education and health care — issues important to most Kansans. What will matter most is not how she stands out but how she fits in.

Here’s something unexpected: Byers’ opponent, Cyndi Howerton, told the Wichita Eagle that she hadn’t even brought up Byers’ gender identity during the campaign. In a story published late Tuesday night, Eagle reporters Denise Neil and Jaime Green described Howerton as “a pastor’s wife who’s spent her career managing retail offices at a personal income tax preparation company” who “said she decided to run for office because she was ‘sickened’ by the polarization between the two parties and that she hoped to bring civil conversations to Kansas. Part of America’s beauty is its diversity, she said.”

Byers’ was a rare victory on a night when in general, Democrats got creamed.

If this year had been less consequential, Democrats could point to some close races, some losses by smaller-than-usual margins, as evidence they’re building a bench. But Barbara Bollier’s 13-point defeat was crushing; longtime Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley lost in a monumental upset; a class of promising new candidates, some of them flush with cash, couldn’t ride a blue wave that never materialized; and Republicans — some of them more conservative, having defeated moderates in August — held onto a supermajority in the Kansas Legislature, which will make life even harder than it already is for Gov. Laura Kelly.

Adding insult to injury is that problem child Aaron Coleman has probably once again beaten Stan Frownfelter in Wyandotte County. After losing to Coleman in the August primary, Frownfelter mounted a write-in campaign, and election officials have said they won’t count write-ins until after election day, but the Wyandotte County election office listed 3,496 votes for Coleman versus 2,013 total write-ins.

Coleman’s policy positions might be progressives’ dream, but every day this admitted woman-abuser represents Kansas House District 37 is a day he’s Reason No. 1 for everyone else not to take those policy positions seriously. If Coleman really regrets his past behavior and has learned and grown as he claims, he’ll pull a Mary Pilcher Cook and resign at the beginning of the session so the party can appoint someone to replace him.

It was a great night for Kansas Republicans! Except for those who emerged from the tall prairie grasses to support Bollier, a former member of their party who defected in 2018.

Back in August, Tom Moxley, a former Kansas House member from Council Grove, told me the election would be a “come to Jesus” moment for Republicans like him who believed that the party has, as he put it, “lost its mind.” A barrel full of other Republicans signed on with support for Bollier. Obviously, this support wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t enough because Kansas Republicans who’ve served since 1991’s Summer of Mercy created a monster. There have been exceptions, of course, but in general Republican legislators courted or placated anti-abortion extremists who pushed the party ever rightward, distorting all other political discourse along the way.

The most recent casualty was Medicaid expansion, which would literally save some small, rural hospitals.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say generations of Republican legislators were just too scared of having their religion publicly questioned. Now that America has spent the past four years — and may spend the next four years — watching the family values crowd prop up a president who’s a walking chalice of shattered commandments, everyone can see what some of us knew all along: It was never about God. It was only about power.

And now, instead of saving more Kansas lives through Medicaid expansion, we’ll most certainly get a statewide vote to ensure that Kansas women have no constitutional right to abortions.

For the record, a strong majority of Kansans support some legal access to abortion. How would our state’s politics play out if lawmakers were brave enough to truly represent this constituency?

It would be complex. But so is reality. And now it’s probably too late.