Opinion

Uncontested races silence Kansas voters. That means ideologues won’t be judged in November.

June 17, 2022 3:33 am

Voters wait in line Oct. 31, 2020, to cast ballots at the Shawnee County election office. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Democracy doesn’t work without choice.

Half of Kansas House races this November will feature candidates running unopposed, meaning that voters across the state won’t be able to make the fundamental choice of who represents them in Topeka. For them, democracy has broken down.

Extremists, homophobes and race-baiting ideologues won’t face the judgment of voters. They have a get-into-the-Statehouse free card.

Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith laid out the basics in a story Wednesday: “55 of the state’s 125 House seats are already decided because only one candidate filed for the seat before last week’s deadline. Another 10 races only have a primary contest.” Of those 55 seats, 36 are held by Republicans and 19 by Democrats.

Let’s talk about some of the people who hold those seats.

We have Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, who offered this prize thought late last year when claiming that critical race theory had infiltrated Kansas schools: “If we go back to any race of people in any part of the world, you’re going to find things that you’re very proud of, and things that you would be very disturbed to know. But to place that burden on a little white girl, compared to another person of another ethnic or racial background, is wrong.”

Sen. Kristey Williams converses on the House floor on Feb. 15, 2022. She has urged colleagues to be mindful of placing a “burden on a little white girl.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Little Black girls? They can apparently take care of themselves. Thank goodness we have Williams looking out for Kansas Caucasians.

Let’s move on! We also have Rep. Randy Garber, R-Sabetha, who supported a bill declaring Sept. 24, 2021, a day of prayer, fasting and public humiliation. In 2019, he sponsored a bill that called same-sex marriages “parody marriages.”

“Their marriage probably doesn’t affect me — their union or whatever you want to call it,” he told the Wichita Eagle about gay people. “But in my opinion, they’re trying to force their beliefs on society.”

We can all breathe a sigh of relief knowing straight couples across the state have a protector in Garber. And they know he’ll be back in Topeka next year, no matter what happens.

Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston, also enjoys a surefire return to his Statehouse office. Sure, he supported a bill creating a financial services company called a “pawn shop for the rich” in Hesston. Smith examined in detail the financial questions that have swirled around the project and how little Kansas legislators understood the votes they took.

Owens’ quote from an April 2021 news conference carries a few more questions these days: “The sky is the limit when you’re talking about anywhere from $10 to $100 million, or up to a billion dollars over the next 10 years, flowing directly into rural Kansas,” Owens said. “And folks, this is not Kansans’ money. This is money coming from California, Florida, Hong Kong, Russia, anywhere.”

But hey, complex investment companies opening up in small-town Kansas need champions too!

Not every candidate running unopposed has a record like Williams, Garber or Owens. Some have made good-faith efforts to reach across the aisle and find ways of working together. As Smith pointed out Wednesday: “The four leaders of the Kansas Future Caucus have no challenger to retain their seats: Rep. Tory Arnberger-Blew, R-Great Bend; Rep. Nick Hoheisel, R-Wichita; Rep. Rui Xu, D-Westwood; and Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa. The caucus is an extension of the D.C.-based Millennial Action Project, which is trying to transform American politics by engaging young leaders who can bridge the partisan divide.”

Rep. Randy Garber, R-Sabetha, co-sponsored a resolution declaring Sept. 24, 2021, to be a day of prayer, fasting and public humiliation. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

That’s all well and good. But what if Republicans in their districts feel as though Xu and Woodard don’t represent them fully? What option do they have in November? What if voters in all of those districts actually want to be represented by extremists? Sure, independents could theoretically gather signatures to appear on the fall ballot, but I’m not holding my breath.

The challenge has nothing to do with extremist or middle-of-the-road legislators themselves. It has to do with a state in which community members don’t want to run for office. We live in hyper-partisan times, and certain Kansas legislators and the organizations behind them have no problem deploying scorched-earth tactics against their opponents.

Those organizations even feel free to pick candidates and expect them to toe the line, said Loud Light’s David Hammet.

“It’s all election by dark money. It’s not actually like there are candidates attempting to participate in their community and be a representative,” he told Smith this week. “They just have a group like the Kansas Chamber that will dump tons of money into a race and mailers and the candidate doesn’t do anything. And so of course, then you have candidates who go into the state Legislature — the person who really got them elected is the Kansas Chamber, so of course they’re beholden to the Kansas Chamber, not to their districts.”

What’s a candidate who simply wants to help his or her state supposed to do? In some communities, running as a Democrat might lead to harassment or ostracism. In others (a far smaller number in Kansas), running as a Republican might lead to the same.

More people should run for public office, from all sides. More people should run who simply want to do the best for Kansas, no matter their party. We should commend those who take the plunge and willingly face the judgment of voters (and opinion editors). They do themselves and their communities a profound service.

They help democracy work. In these perilous times, that’s no small thing.

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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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