Former Gov. Jeff Colyer, who lost the 2018 Republican primary for governor, said in an interview GOP candidates in Kansas typically didn’t get media coverage consistent with reporting on Democratic candidates. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Former Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer says Democrats in Kansas can seize news coverage in Kansas with positive political messaging while Republicans such as himself find it “nearly impossible” to break through the firewall without going negative.
“In Kansas, there isn’t a single conservative newspaper,” Colyer said of his view on a coverage inequity. “There is frankly not even a conservative columnist in my entire state.”
Colyer, a Republican who served as governor in 2018 and 2019, took office following resignation of Gov. Sam Brownback to accept a job in the administration of President Donald Trump. Colyer served in the Kansas Legislature prior to winning election as lieutenant governor in 2010 and 2014 on a ticket with Brownback.
In 2018, Colyer narrowly lost the Republican Party’s primary for governor to fellow conservative Kris Kobach, who subsequently was defeated by Democrat Laura Kelly.
Colyer said during an interview on the “What Could Go Right?” podcast hosted by The Progress Network‘s Zachary Karabell and Emma Varvaloucas that Kansas Republicans tended to rely on social media to communicate with potential voters. He was interviewed about practicality of a bipartisan future in U.S. politics along with U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat and critic of Trump.
“You’ve got to live in the social media world,” Colyer said of campaigning in Kansas. “We don’t get a fair hearing.”
‘Like pro wrestling’
Swalwell said use of social media presented opportunities for candidates and their opponent’s to identify policy priorities and to highlight contrasts with campaign rivals. Those who shun social media run the risk of being defined by an opponent, he said.
In addition, he said, the quest for clicks on social media had led some of his peers in Congress to initiate vicious public attacks that didn’t correspond to cordial personal relationships that existed among members of Congress.
“It can be pro wrestling at its worse,” Swalwell said. “Like pro wrestling, what happens in the ring and backstage is not the same thing. For many, the ring is where you entertain ‘fans.’ But backstage, we all get the joke. I’ve seen social media push us to that.”
He offered an example: U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas posted on social media scorching criticism of Swalwell’s participation in an impeachment proceeding against Trump. While in the privacy of a restroom, Swalwell said, Cruz introduced himself and praised the California congressman’s contributions to the debate.
Disservice to democracy
Colyer, who wasn’t endorsed by Trump in his 2018 gubernatorial race, said misguided politicians and their advocates were causing damage by asserting U.S. democracy was at risk due to the riot at the Capitol in 2021 following Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden and due to ongoing efforts to undermine legitimacy of voting.
“We really do a disservice to our democracy when we say we are truly at risk,” Colyer said. “The system does respond. We’ve been through the violence of the ’60s and the anti-war (movement). We have a vibrant democracy. More people are voting than ever before. More people have opportunities to express their needs. I trust the American people on this.”
Swalwell said he was mindful assertions about dark political times in the United States ought to be tempered by the nation’s history. He recalled remarks by the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia lawmaker who passed away in 2020. Lewis was a civil rights activist who was beaten by state troopers while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what became known as Bloody Sunday.
“He would tell us, ‘You think times are tough now. Try doing what I did in the ’50s and ’60s,'” Swalwell said.
Still, Swalwell said he was worried GOP candidates for office in 2022 had pledged to seek prosecution of people who certified Biden’s victory over Trump in 2020. He said the November elections would determine the arc of the next two to five years of U.S. politics.
“If the Democrats keep the House and Senate and defy history, because that’s not supposed to happen in a president’s first mid-term election, I think that finally breaks the fever on Trumpism,” he said.
Crying wolf, again
Swalwell said Democrats and Republicans were guilty of “crying wolf” during the presidency of George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009 and Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017. The rival political parties argued these presidents would run American democracy into the ditch. In the end, he said, Trump proved more dangerous to welfare of the nation but people to a degree tuned out that message.
“It’s a lesson about crying wolf about threats to democracy,” Swalwell said. “We missed the opportunity to really alarm people about what Donald Trump did, because he’s in a category of his own.”
Colyer, who served in both the Kansas House and Senate before entering the executive branch, said bipartisan bills could be passed in the current political environment, but big ideas typically required investment in the fight.
He said Kansas’ bipartisan bill that brought to an end — for now — litigation on school finance represented the kind of bill worthy of a battle resolved through compromise.
“The governor was correct to say at the end of the day you have to govern,” Swalwell said. “To me, that means do you attack and work the problems? Or, are you just working for your own power? That’s regardless of which party is in power.”
Swalwell said a significant missed opportunity in Washington, D.C., involved work by Presidents Bush and Obama to push through an immigration reform law.
It cleared the U.S. Senate with support of Republican U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, despite opposition from GOP U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts. The GOP-led U.S. House refused to call a vote on the measure adding 700 miles of border fencing, inserting 28,000 law enforcement officers on the border and creating a path to citizenship for immigrants.
“Had we gotten a vote in the House, I think that would have been a way to attack the problem by increasing border security but also bringing people out of the shadows,” Swalwell said.
He said political conflict about immigration had subsequently dissolved into “border theater” in which the two major political parties continued to move further apart.
Colyer, who dropped out of the 2022 gubernatorial campaign due to health problems, said Americans would draw closer to the political process if they believed elected officials, both Republican and Democrat, were listening to their concerns.
“I really think people need to hear us communicate,” Colyer said.
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