Mapping a moderate Republican resurgence: Kansans First group makes big plans

October 12, 2023 3:33 am
Roll of "I voted" circular stickers

Kansas politics would be transformed by a renewal of moderate Republican candidates and voters, writes Clay Wirestone. But they need to come off the sidelines first. (Getty Images)

The road to renewal in Kansas runs through a single political party: the Republican one.

While Democrats have a traditionally wide-ranging coalition — all the way from free-market capitalists to democratic socialists and beyond — Republicans have winnowed their ranks to a teensy spectrum of hard right to extreme right. Think of it this way: The space between Gov. Laura Kelly and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez contains huge political and practical differences. The space between Senate President Ty Masterson and likely U.S. House Speaker Steve Scalise could split an atom.

They’re two sides of the same extremist coin.

That’s why Kansans First, the educational organization headed by former state Senate President Steve Morris, deserves your attention. Created with the help of Republicans consultant and strategist Mitch Rucker (my former colleague at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children), the group aims to reanimate the moderate GOP coalition that once wisely guided Kansas politics.

“In the past years, we had a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats that worked together to do good things for the state,” Morris told me on this week’s installment of the Kansas Reflector podcast. “And we were successful in doing that. But I don’t see that bipartisan cooperation happening now.”

Moderate Republicans once guided our nation, working closely with a Democratic-dominated Congress. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush all embodied moderation — to different extents, and in their own distinctive ways. They didn’t just navigate our nation for decades, they helped win the Cold War along the way.

In Kansas, moderate Republicans governors like Bill Graves and Mike Hayden alternated with moderate Democrats like John Carlin and Kathleen Sebelius.

I grew up in that Kansas. I don’t recall many folks complaining about it at the time.

Extreme partisanship, fueled by religious fundamentalism and national politics, eventually infected the Sunflower State. Gov. Sam Brownback, a diehard ideologue, led a purge of moderate Republicans from the Legislature in 2012. Arguably, the state hasn’t recovered in the 11 years since.

Morris was one of those ousted.

“When I was involved with the Senate, we had majority of the Senate and the House either in the center, center right or center left,” he said. “We didn’t have the extremes of hard left or hard right. And I think the hard right is where we are right now. And I don’t believe that the majority of Kansas are there.”

When I was involved with the Senate, we had the majority of the Senate and the House either in the center, center right or center left. We didn't have the extremes of hard left or hard right. And I think the hard right is where we are right now. And I don't believe that the majority of Kansas are there.

– Steve Morris

By any standard, the far right has been a disaster for Kansas. Brownback’s signature tax policy “experiment” exploded into destructive shards, damaging state schools and other services from top to bottom. The party since then has lost two gubernatorial races to a moderate Democrat, saw an anti-abortion constitutional amendment collapse at the polls and spent years slow-rolling food sales tax cuts. What a record of accomplishment.

GOP legislators now want to take another whack at demolishing public schools through a convoluted voucher program that amounts to government handouts to wealthy families and religious schools.

As Morris suggested, majorities of Kansas don’t support — have never supported — this extremism. They have traditionally backed moderates of both parties who invest in high-quality state services while watching finances with an eagle eye. The state that produced Eisenhower, Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum can surely manage a more competent crop of leaders than Dan Hawkins and Kris Kobach.

Democrats, of course, believe that solution to this quandary will come from making them the majority party. They might be right. But in deep-red Kansas, such a project will take decades at a minimum. Republicans have to step up to make things right.

“There’s a political cost to trying to reach across the aisle because of our partisan system,” Rucker said during the podcast. “And we see that playing out on the big stage in Washington, D.C., but we are certainly not immune from those same challenges that are kind of baked into the the two-party system that’s right here at home.”

If moderate GOP voters and candidates come off the sidelines, Kansas politics would change overnight. State government would put people first, rather than business interests. We would see fully funded schools, a sensible tax system, sturdy supports for those in need and a respect for the rights of everyone. It wouldn’t take much. Just a willingness to engage and make different choices.

Kansans First has its work cut out for it. But we could all benefit.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited 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, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent 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.