Opinion

One group’s not-so-impossible dream: progressive majorities in the Kansas Statehouse by 2026

May 24, 2022 3:33 am
The Ad Astra statue aims high atop of the Kansas Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2022. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Ad Astra statue aims high atop of the Kansas Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2022. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Cast your mind ahead to November of 2026. In that month, in that year, activists in Kansas could well be celebrating as voters send progressive majorities in both the state House and Senate.

Wait, you say. What?

That’s the ambitious aim of the nonprofit group Prairie Roots, headed up by executive director Peyton Browning. The group launched last year and has unveiled a breathtakingly ambitious goal for transforming politics in Kansas. Modeled on successful work by Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Prairie Roots focuses on direct engagement with would-be voters.

The goal? Turning out thousands of new progressive voters and flipping both chambers of the Statehouse.

In seemingly deep-red Kansas, skepticism comes naturally when hearing about such efforts. But in a conversation and subsequent email exchanges with Browning, it becomes clear that conservatives underestimate such work at their peril.

“Nobody is going to (and we probably don’t want them to) come into Kansas to save the day — we’ve got to do it ourselves,” Browning told me via email. “It’s going to take having a long-term plan and it’s going to take getting into deep conversations with our neighbors. We’re in a political climate where these conversations are so needed.”

Making change in the political arena can seem daunting. Big money supports candidates backed by powerful business interests. The outcome seems like a foregone conclusion, one assured by party bosses in Washington, D.C. Who can hope to compete?

Peyton Browning is executive director and co-founder of the Prairie Roots organization. (Prairie Roots)

Anyone who has the votes.

That’s key to Prairie Roots’ conception of Kansas politics. With a deep well of untapped and unengaged potential voters, progressive candidates can theoretically run — and win — throughout the state. Making sure these kinds of voters turn up, however, requires investment. Not just of money, although that’s always useful, but also of time and volunteer hours.

Browning acknowledged the group needs donations and volunteers. About 400 have shown up to help so far, but more will be needed to achieve an ambitious goal of turning out 10,000 new progressive voters.

While you might be familiar with political volunteers knocking on your door and handing you a glossy flier, Prairie Roots heads in a different direction altogether. Rather than drill volunteers on a list of consultant-approved talking points, the group encourages them to share their own stories to would-be voters.

“We don’t actually do much ‘messaging,’ but instead we do ‘story-telling,’ ” Browning said. “Each of our volunteers has their own set of experiences and so does the non-voter they’re talking to — it truly is just neighbors connecting and sharing perspectives.”

The approach is called “deep canvassing.”

“When we talk with non-voters, we’re going to them and asking questions like, ‘What issues are you facing in your daily life?’ and ‘Is your government working for you?’ ” Browning said. “And through their own story-telling, we then connect their own life experiences to why they should start voting, especially in local elections. Our work has shown that this approach works well because we’re showing them the exact reasons why voting impacts their life, which has been a great motivator for these folks.”

Kansas has incredibly important votes coming up. On the Aug. 2 primary ballot, voters will decide on the future of abortion rights in Kansas. On Nov. 8, voters will decide who serves in statewide elected offices and who represents them at the Statehouse. These elections will shape everyone’s future in our state.

Kansas has incredibly important votes coming up. On the Aug. 2 primary ballot, voters will decide on the future of abortion rights in Kansas. On Nov. 8, voters will decide who serves in statewide elected offices and who represents them at the Statehouse. These elections will shape everyone’s future in our state.

– Clay Wirestone

Does everyone know that, however? How many of your family and friends actually understand the stakes of these coming elections or that they can make their voices heard at the ballot box? Those are the kind of discussions that Prairie Roots wants to have. They’re also the kind of discussions that anyone can have, if making change matters to them.

“These non-voters aren’t in really anyone’s (campaigns and organizations) universe of voters to talk to — so Prairie Roots is their first time that someone has knocked on their door or called their phone, and they’ve been really open to it,” Browning said. “Out of the hundreds of non-voters we’ve talked to about the constitutional amendment on the ballot this August, about 95% of them have been shocked and have committed to vote for the first time to vote against the amendment.”

The ultimate challenge, of course, is sustaining that turnout and delivering meaningful results to those who went out on a limb for you.

After all, the abortion amendment could pass. Right-wing extremists could win offices throughout Kansans state government. All of these things could happen, while activists keep up their work in the background. Any single person might be disappointed at the results of any single election, but that’s no reason to stop turning out and doing your civic duty.

As Georgia’s Abrams put it during a December interview on NPR: “That’s a bifurcation that tends to happen in politics, either persuasion or turnout. I actually think that it’s both-and. We have to persuade people that it’s worth turning out. We have to persuade people that it is worth the heartbreak of investing your time and asking someone to serve you and then not getting what you thought you would get. There is a constancy to public service, and in particular in politics, where we have to constantly persuade people that it’s worth staying engaged. But that’s work I am happy to do. …

“If you want people to turn out, you have to persuade them that it is worth the pain of hope, it is worth believing that this person asking you for this vote is actually going to do what they say or will do their best to make it so.”

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics, and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

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