Archive for Monday, November 18, 2002

Division effectively creates three-party system in Kansas

November 18, 2002


— In this year's general election, voters left each of Kansas' three major political parties with a strong base of power within state government.

Each party - Democrats, Republicans aligned with outgoing Gov. Bill Graves, and Republicans who've often been at odds with him - can't achieve its policy objectives on its own.

Each will be forced to build legislative coalitions to accomplish its goals. Coalitions may form and dissolve issue by issue, or two groups may work together regularly.

Gov.-elect Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, and Atty. Gen.-elect Phill Kline, a Republican, already are trying to build governing coalitions, two months before they're sworn into office.

"We're really going to enter an era of coalition government," said outgoing Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer.

The state's three-party system is a product of the Republicans' traditional dominance of Kansas politics.

Nearly 743,000 of the state's 1.6 million registered voters are Republicans, compared to 441,000 Democrats, about 27 percent of the total. The state has 420,000 unaffiliated voters, who account for 26 percent of those registered.

Of the 44 governors, including Sebelius, 32 have been Republicans. During the past century, only one Democrat has served as secretary of state - Larry Ryan in 1949-51 - and legend has it that voters were confused because he ran against Republican incumbent Frank Ryan.

But dominance hasn't brought peace. A split among Republicans has existed for decades.

In 1912, the GOP split over Teddy Roosevelt and his progressive Bull Moosers. During the 1950s, it split among adherents to President Eisenhower and Ohio Sen. Robert Taft. During the 1970s, there were self-styled progressives like then-Senate President Richard Rogers and the more conservative "cavemen" he criticized.

The GOP split might go back to statehood, when the first governor, Charles Robinson, feuded with one of Kansas' first two U.S. senators, James Lane.

Another round of infighting intensified in 1994, when Graves won the governor's race but David Miller won the GOP state chairmanship.

Since then, the lines have been fuzzy between the two camps.

Abortion has been key. Abortion rights advocates have sided most often with Graves. Abortion opponents have opposed him.

This year, it was a willingness to accept tax increases to prevent cuts in education and social services, with Graves leading the push.

Graves and his allies consider themselves moderates; his GOP critics are described as conservatives. The labels have become shorthand for an "I know one when I see one" test, usually based on whether a Republican is strongly aligned with Graves or not.

Whatever the lines, the split is real and ongoing, and voters appeared to give neither faction a strong advantage.

Moderates still control the leadership in the Senate, where Republicans have a 30-10 majority. No seats were on the ballot this year. Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh, who won a third term, and Insurance Commissioner-elect Sandy Praeger and State Treasurer-elect Lynn Jenkins are considered moderates.

Returning members and members-elect pick new House leaders on Dec. 2, with Republicans holding an 80-45 majority. Even if a conservative isn't named speaker, that wing of the party is likely to control a large enough number of votes to influence policy.

The most prominent conservative in state government will be Kline. He's promised to pursue tougher sentencing laws and interpret a state law restricting late-term abortions more narrowly than his predecessor, Carla Stovall, a Republican who favored abortion rights.

But Kline is wooing moderates and even Democrats. His transition team includes past supporters of Sen. David Adkins, R-Leawood, a moderate Kline defeated in the GOP primary, and Wyandotte County Sheriff Leroy Green, a Democrat.

"Certainly, I need to build some bridges," Kline said during a news conference last week. "We'll do what we can to make sure people are welcome in that office."

The Democrats' power base in state government is the strongest one :quot; the governor's office, occupied by Sebelius, the party's only statewide officeholder.

But Sebelius won't be able to get any initiatives passed without Republican votes.

Of course, Sebelius understands well the position she's in, having run as a Democrat for statewide office. She wouldn't have won if her record $4 million campaign had failed to attract Republican votes.

She named Adkins as one of five team leaders in her top-to-bottom review of state government.

"I think what the challenge will be is how to put together a working coalition to move things forward," Sebelius said in a recent interview. "I've always assumed that."

The state will be governed by coalition. The questions at any time next year will be which two of the state's three major political parties has formed the alliance and how long it will last.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.