In a year packed with opportunities, the Kansas Democratic Party has fumbled time and again

July 26, 2022 3:33 am
A groundhog holds a sign likening Attorney General Derek Schmidt to former Gov. Sam Brownback in front of Schmidt's office on Feb. 3. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

A groundhog holds a sign likening Attorney General Derek Schmidt to former Gov. Sam Brownback in front of Schmidt’s office on Feb. 3. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Harrison Baker is a lifelong resident of Kansas and works as an attorney.

I began this op-ed in February, then waited to see if anything would change about the Kansas Democratic Party. Plenty has changed over the last five months, but none of it is positive. Time and time again, I’ve watched basic failures of leadership from the state party, and a point of no return is rapidly approaching.

Arguably, it has careened off a cliff.

Instead of planning large-scale grassroots efforts to combat the anti-abortion constitutional amendment, advocating for more transparency with how bills are passed in the Legislature, leading the charge against the “zombie” bills or finding Democrats to run in every open election, especially with the new gerrymandered political landscape, the party is far more interested in inane advertising campaigns maintaining the power of their chair and executive staff.

In November 2021, Jonathan Cole explained that top Democrats failed to seize an opportunity to market their infrastructure plans. Instead, Democrats in Kansas heard crickets. It was as if the KDP saw an opportunity and deliberately chose to keep silent.

Let’s not even get into the Groundhog Day stunt, written about by Kansas Reflector opinion editor Clay Wirestone. After all, the KDP didn’t seem to realize Wirestone was poking fun at their choices in messaging against Derek Schmidt. 

In its most recent marketing ploy, the party found 50 “Schmidts,” “Schmids” or “Schmits” to endorse incumbent Gov. Laura Kelly for reelection. A particularly dubious marketing strategy, but what more can you expect from the crack team that brought us a human-sized rodent.

John Pauldine said it best on Twitter. This “would be like if paula dean reached out to me to do an ad because my name is close enough.”

Indeed, John.


Not totally failing, just basically failing

To be clear, I am not saying the KDP has utterly failed at its duty to “promote policies that provide economic and social justice, a clean environment and safe workplaces.” Just that it has basically failed. Those that the KDP ostensibly seeks to represent and uplift cannot wait any longer. Kansas needs to protect people of color and trans people, it needs to prevent more teachers from leaving, and it needs better leadership from one of its two major parties.

I hoped that the party was going to unveil a grand plan for preventing the anti-abortion amendment from passing at Washington Days, but there was nothing. Instead I attended caucus meetings in which everyone wanted to make change, but because of failure by leadership there is no way to create it. There was no conversation about paying party interns a fair and livable wage or any other platform that the party could uplift to gather public support.

In a word, Washington Days could be summed up as “disappointing.”

In several words, it could be described as “an event designed to convince people that the KDP is not just being run by political hobbyists more invested in their image than creating an engaged base from which change can happen.”


Problems at the top dismissed

I had little hope and respect for the KDP and its leadership, but in May that small amount of good faith was extinguished. The Kansas City Star broke the story that executive director Ben Meers was accused of being verbally and mentally abusive.

The party stated it made several internal changes but hasn’t explained what they are. Based on the allegations, perhaps the internal changes should include a new executive director.

Further changes must include restructuring of the KDP. That will require those in power to step down, including current chair Vicki Hiatt, and allowing a new generation to step forward. The people’s confidence in the KDP to accomplish anything has been shaken.

Republicans understand how to play this game of politics. As Wirestone wrote in his take on the mess, Republicans “have their sight set on power at all costs.” They focus on hot-button issues and know how to strike when the iron is hot.

The iron is white hot right now on the topic of abortion.

When the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey with its dubious decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Democrats across the nation were given an instant flashpoint to drive their points home and gather support.

Kansas Democrats could be using this to bolster “vote no” efforts, but all we have seen is two approximately 15-second clips about donating money on Facebook and a four-sentence “statement” about the decision. No news comes from up high in the ivory tower.


Ratings plummet, but the party sails on

To the casual observer it would seem the Kansas Democrats are either incompetent at getting people to support them, or they are being intentionally malicious. The more conspiracy minded folks may even believe that the leadership of the Kansas Democratic Party is in cahoots with the Republicans, but surely something like that has never happened before

National support for the Democratic Party is plummeting; approval ratings for Biden have reached 36% overall, and among individuals younger than 45 the support is worse, with 63% disapproving of his performance.

Kansas Democrats seem content to allow this drop to continue, and do nothing to try and persuade people to vote for them in elections. The Republicans in my life have done more to persuade people to vote no on Aug. 2 than the Kansas Democratic Party.

To be clear, this is not an attack against the many smaller groups and individuals who are doing exceptional work. Their efforts should have been supported by the central party, but instead they have to raise money and knock doors without institutional support.

Perhaps I am just being cynical.

Perhaps behind the scenes the party is doing amazing work.

But until the Kansas Democratic Party can effectively market its successes, only its failures are on display.

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Harrison Baker
Harrison Baker

Harrison Baker is a lifelong resident of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence with his partner and two cats while working as an attorney.