Opinion

As Trump announces, Kansas GOP follows his lead and plots revenge. But there’s another way.

November 16, 2022 3:33 am
Mike Kuckelman, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party

Mike Kuckelman, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, plans to punish party members who supported the independent candidacy of state Sen. Dennis Pyle. (November 2020 photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The nation turned its incredulous eyes to Mar-a-Lago Tuesday night as former President Donald Trump launched his third campaign for the highest office in the land.

But spare a wary peeper or two for the antics of the Kansas Republican Party, which seems to have absorbed the onetime commander-in-chief’s taste for vengeance against his enemies, with none of the sparkling “YMCA” dance moves. Following the loss of standard-bearer Derek Schmidt in the gubernatorial election, the party has decided to punish members who signed a petition for state Sen. Dennis Pyle, who ran as an arch-conservative independent.

You might expect a party grappling with multiple high-profile losses to engage in some self-examination. But Trump didn’t manage such a thing after overseeing GOP losses in 2018, 2020 and last week. Why should we expect anything else from Kansas Republicans?

“Your signature on the Pyle petition wrongfully provided direct support of a candidate other than the Republican nominee,” reads the letter from Mike Kuckelman, chairman of the state GOP, to supposed offenders. They could be ousted from committees as retaliation.

Party leaders believe, contrary to all sense, that Pyle cost them the election against Gov. Laura Kelly.

The math says otherwise.

Derek Schmidt appears on stage with family
Derek Schmidt addresses the crowd at the GOP election night watch party in Topeka. Schmidt lost his campaign against Gov. Laura Kelly. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

According to the secretary of state’s running totals, the incumbent governor earned 492,209 votes to Schmidt’s 471,323. That’s a 20,886-vote margin. By comparison, Pyle received 20,057 votes. Even if every single vote for the independent candidate went to Schmidt, Kelly would have still won by 829 votes. What’s more, everyone knows that Pyle’s voters might have stayed at home or cast a ballot for Libertarian Seth Cordell before supporting the establishment Republican.

Trump blames illusory voter fraud for his defeat at the hands of Joe Biden. The Kansas GOP blames Pyle for their defeat at the hands of Kelly. The blame game allows both to avoid examining their own failures and taking responsibility for future campaigns.

State Republicans had an archetypal Republican moderate in Schmidt. He served a dozen years as state attorney general, apprenticed under former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum and learned to shake hands with the best of them. He could have followed in the footsteps of Bill Graves, Kansas’ monstrously popular governor from the late ’90s. Instead, he ran a sluggish campaign embracing banal right-wing tropes.

Or as Pyle pithily put it: “Derek Schmidt didn’t perform. As much as Kansas desperately needed a conservative governor, the Republican Party gave us a candidate that could not and did not win.”

The Kansas GOP has been here before.

Back in 2018, they decided that Kelly’s gubernatorial victory against Kris Kobach didn’t matter. First of all, independent Greg Orman ran a disciplined campaign and earned 6.5% of the vote. His margin of 68,498 votes was indeed larger than there 53,479 ballots that separated Kelly and Kobach. Secondly, Kobach ran what Republicans, Democrats and political observers all agreed was a dreadful race.

In 2018 and 2022, however, the party has skipped the process of figuring out whether it could learn anything from the actual Kansas electorate. Our state’s voters might prefer moderate candidates. Kobach and Schmidt might have been profoundly flawed in ways we still don’t comprehend. But leaders won’t find answers if they don’t look for them.

They should learn from the Trumpiest candidate in Kansas, one who actually won his race Nov. 8.

That would be Kobach, who kept trying after others might have withdrawn from the public sphere in embarrassment. He ran for attorney general, and I’d be darned if he didn’t appear to have figured something out along the way.

Kris Kobach, Republican nominee for attorney general, supports adoption of the federal model of Senate confirmation for nominees to the Kansas Supreme Court. His opponent in the November campaign, Democrat Chris Mann, prefers the current merit-selection review process of potential Supreme Court justices. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Kris Kobach speaks at a Kansas Chamber event. He won the statewide race to become Kansas’ next attorney general. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Party bigwigs didn’t want Kobach as AG nominee. He was supposedly damaged goods after losing the governor’s race and a U.S. Senate primary. But he forged ahead anyway, dispatching Republican opponents Kellie Warren and Tony Mattivi in an unusually crowded primary. Then he ran — wait for it — a moderate and restrained race.

Wait, what?

No one should believe that Kobach instantly became a Republican in Name Only, or RINO. (Sure, he was an Overland Park city councilman at one point, but let’s put that aside for now.) He kept his rock-ribbed conservative bonafides, along with a lusty desire to sue the Biden administration. But he went about his campaign in a restrained manner, making his case in a non-threatening way. He chatted about his goals for the office and avoided spinning tales of vengeance.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, Kobach decided to try sanity instead.

“I do have a record,” Kobach said at a TV debate last month. “And one thing that Republicans and Democrats agree about on me is that I do exactly what I say I’m going to do.”

Note that he didn’t bloviate, grandstand or run from his record. He embraced it, while simultaneously sounding fairly human.

Don’t misunderstand me. Kansans have every reason to expect the upcoming Kobach attorney general term to feature copious shenanigans. He will harm the state he professes to love. But if you want to govern, however poorly, you have to win first. Kobach figured out what the public wanted, and he gave it to them. He even earned more votes than Kelly.

Throughout the past seven years, since Trump descended that gold escalator, we’ve watched the same tired routine. The mad king of Mar-a-Lago has no interest in adapting to circumstances or running a different kind of campaign. From the sound of Tuesday night’s announcement, we’re in for more of the same. Insults. Lies. A self-destructive focus on revenge. But Trump, like the Kansas Republican Party, could stand to watch and listen to Kobach.

They might learn something about appealing to voters.

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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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