Opinion

Invasion of the body snatchers: Kansas GOP leaders crave control of residents

January 19, 2023 3:33 am
peaker of the House Dan Hawkins and Senate President Ty Masterson

Speaker of the House Dan Hawkins and Senate President Ty Masterson recognize Marla Luckert, chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court , on Jan. 11, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Republican leaders in the Kansas Legislature want to control your body and the bodies of your children.

This new invasion of the body snatchers has played out across the last year or more in state politics, as those who claim to lead a party once dedicated to individual rights abandoned its rich history. GOP bigwigs now tout legislation that would criminalize gender-affirming care for those under age 21. That means barring parents and doctors from caring for children and teens in the best way possible. That comes mere months after a statewide abortion vote that would have allowed these same leaders to pass bills controlling women’s bodies.

Individual rights? Forget about that. Senate President Ty Masterson and Speaker of the House Dan Hawkins, both conservative Republicans, believe the state should regulate residents’ bodily autonomy. Meanwhile, they oppose Medicaid expansion legislation that would keep Kansas bodies healthy and living longer.

You can call their positions a lot of things. But they’re not Republican. They’re not conservative. And they’re most certainly not pro-life.

 

Kansas past and present

Back in 1978, which happens to be the year I was born, Kansans elected a pro-choice, Equal Rights Amendment-supporting woman to the U.S. Senate. Her name was Nancy Kassebaum, and she exemplified how Republicans once respected the bodies of those they served.

The former senator tells a story, relayed by Kansas Reflector’s Allison Kite in October, demonstrating how much has changed.

Before declaring her run, Kassebaum spoke with her father, former governor and presidential candidate Alf Landon. He wondered what reporters might ask her about. Abortion and guns, she replied.

There was a long pause.

“My father at that point was in his 80s, and he said, ‘Abortion? Well what business is that of the government?’ ” Kassebaum said.

The elder Landon could have responded in the same way to debates about transgender rights. He could have responded in the same way to questions about the rights of parents to choose the best medical treatment for their kids. He could have responded the same way to onetime debates over same-sex marriage or sodomy laws.

“What business is that of the government?”

What business indeed. What business is it of the two powerful men who helm the Kansas Legislature?

In the four decades since Kassebaum’s election, the former senator and the rest of us have witnessed the transition of a once-proud political party from one that supported fiscal responsibility and restrained government into one that supports authoritarianism and would-be despots such as former President Donald Trump. Republicans who once championed robust foreign policy and support of democracy overseas now champion foreign strongmen such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

A libertarian, free-market party has become an authoritarian, radical religious sect.

Former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas endorsed for reelection Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly rather than Republican gubernatorial nominee Derek Schmidt, who previously worked for Kassebaum. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)
Former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas endorsed for reelection Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly rather than Republican gubernatorial nominee Derek Schmidt, who previously worked for Kassebaum. (Thad Allton for Kansas Reflector)

 

Not all Republicans

Like the body snatchers of the original 1956 film, these new kinds of Republicans have infiltrated the old.

They look superficially similar but hold vastly different philosophies of life and governance. They’re pod people, grown in the conspiratorial soil fertilized by Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Trump. Their goal? Amassing power.

A handful of GOP legislators, in both the House and Senate, retain their party’s former views. They’ve held onto their humanity. I know because I’ve talked to them. They don’t want to control the bodies of women or transgender children. They don’t see why gay people shouldn’t marry. They want to expand KanCare to fortify the health of children and families across the state. Their voters feel the same way.

You can tell from the wave of former Republican officeholders who endorsed Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s reelection campaign. Republican Govs. Mike Hayden and Bill Graves, along with Kassebaum, lent their support.

You can tell by the way that Kansans actually vote.

While Republicans retain an overwhelming registration majority — 874,446 to 518,651 as of September — the abortion amendment went down in flames and Kelly won a second term. Not all of the electorate wants state leaders to dictate how they use their bodies. Their clearly expressed intentions conflict with those of Masterson and Hawkins, however, not to mention the Koch-sponsored think tanks determined to rewrite state tax policy and eviscerate education funding.

The many GOP lawmakers who disagree have learned to bite their tongues and keep their heads down. Otherwise they might face primary challenges and lose their seats altogether.

What good could they do then?

Ashley All, spokeswoman for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, gives a speech Aug. 2, 2022, at a watch party in Overland Park after primary results verified Kansans voted to preserve abortion rights. (Lily O'Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)
Ashley All, spokeswoman for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, gives a speech Aug. 2, 2022, at a watch party in Overland Park after primary results verified Kansans voted to preserve abortion rights. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

 

Aggressive exploitation

One recent news item encapsulates this invasion of the body snatchers better than any other.

Rightwing activist Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union, has been sued by a former member of Hershel Walker’s U.S. Senate campaign. Schlapp is accused of sexual assault, “aggressively fondling” the aide’s “genital area in a sustained fashion” during a car trip, according to the New York Times. He vigorously denies the charges, according to his lawyer.

Schlapp has deep roots in Kansas politics, serving as chief of staff for five years to U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt before climbing the ladder in Washington, D.C. He and his wife, Mercedes, campaigned for the Value Them Both anti-abortion amendment over summer.

Consider, for a moment, the situation alleged by Walker’s employee. An older Republican man uses the body of a younger person as his personal plaything. The younger person now grapples with fear and shame. He has chosen to remain anonymous, afraid of what the accusations might mean for his career.

“Matt Schlapp of the CPAC grabbed my junk and pummeled it at length, and I’m sitting there thinking what the hell is going on, that this person is literally doing this to me,” said the man in a video recorded at the time, according to the Daily Beast.

Isn’t this what Kansas GOP leaders are doing to the bodies of state residents?

They’re shoving their legislative hands where they aren’t wanted, wielding the coercive power of the state simply because they can. The people of Kansas have protested loudly and publicly, but Masterson and Hawkins persist. They didn’t just advocate for the Value Them Both amendment, but want to pass further abortion restrictions. They don’t just want to bar transgender school athletes but now scheme to criminalize their care.

These men’s 2023 legislative agenda would violate the bodies of women and children across Kansas. The mere mention of such proposals have left the targets fearful and shamed.

Traditional Republicans and Democrats have their work cut out for them: Stop the body snatchers before it’s too late.

Matt Schlapp gestures while sitting on a stage
Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union, appears at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 28, 2020, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

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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. Clay spent 2017 to 2021 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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