Given the general lack of interest in primary elections in Kansas, it may seem curious that Republicans are fighting in court over whether to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their primary.
After all, 45 incumbents and two newcomers will slide into the Kansas House next November without election opposition. Another six face only a challenge from the Libertarian Party, which represents about 5 percent of Kansas voters. It seems that it will be difficult to get many voters to the polls on primary election day anyway. Why are Republicans fighting to keep that number down? And why aren't Democrats doing the same?
The answer seems to be that, while Democrats are relatively settled on what their party stands for, Republicans are deeply divided between moderate and conservative philosophies. In many cases, primary elections will be used as a battlefield to see which element will control the Kansas Republican Party. Because conservative Republicans in Kansas have a strong record of getting their voters to the polls, they stand to benefit from a smaller voter turnout. Allowing unaffiliated voters in the election might dilute that conservative advantage.
This is not an insignificant issue for Kansas. Four Kansas Senate seats and 17 House seats essentially will be filled in the Republican primary because no Democratic candidates have filed in those races. One of those is the 45th District seat being sought by incumbent Tom Sloan of Lawrence and Keith Noe of Lecompton. Only one Senate seat and one House seat have only Democratic contenders.
The bitter split between moderate and conservative Republicans in the Kansas Legislature has stymied action on some issues and often pushed moderate Republicans into alliances with their Democratic colleagues. A swing of 17 votes in the House or four in the Senate from moderate to conservative would have a significant impact on policy-making in Kansas.
The retirements of some moderate Republicans who held legislative leadership positions -- notably Sen. Lana Oleen of Manhattan and Dave Kerr of Hutchinson -- widen the opening for a conservative swing.
There are several forces at work here. First, all Kansas Republicans -- that's 46 percent of registered voters -- who care about the future of their party should take a keen interest in this primary election. It will decide not just who represents them but, given the large majority of Republicans in the Legislature, could alter the entire state's future. Democratic voters -- 27 percent of those registered -- should be disappointed that, in too many races, they are shut out of this decision. Where were their party leaders? Why are there 46 House seats that have no Democratic candidates? (In fairness, 23 House seats have no Republican candidates.)
On one hand, it seems fair to have as many voters as possible, including unaffiliated voters (26 percent of those registered), participating in the important Republican primaries. But, on the other hand, why should Republicans be forced to compensate for a lack of interest or initiative by state Democrats?
Thomas Frank, who visited Lawrence last week to promote his new book, "What's the Matter With Kansas?", contends that Republicans have used social issues to trick people into electing conservatives. That's a pretty demeaning comment on the people of Kansas, who don't like to think of themselves as being easily fooled.
But perhaps many Kansans have been tricked into thinking that politics and elections don't have much impact on their lives. Clearly they do, and Kansans need to reassert themselves at the polls and in party organizations to make sure their government accurately reflects the wishes of its constituents.