Topeka — Kansas Republican leaders emerged from a closed-door meeting Saturday, proclaiming party unity and unanimous support for their embattled chairman, Tim Shallenburger.
The gathering of the state GOP's executive committee came amid concerns that internal divisions, particularly over the issue of abortion, could hobble the party as it attempts to defeat Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, in 2006.
"I think Republicans - at least the executive committee that met today - agree with where I believe the party should go," said Shallenburger, who reportedly offered to resign last month because of party bickering. "Republicans can have different beliefs and still be Republicans."
Such attempts to heal party rifts may not draw full support from grass-roots party activists.
Mark Gietzen, a Wichita anti-abortion activist involved in state party politics, said there should be room in the GOP for disagreement - except on abortion.
"If someone is pro-abort, they should not be part of the Republican Party," Gietzen said Saturday afternoon. "We can't have it both ways. You can't be all things to all people. That's what Tim Shallenburger is trying to do."
Shallenburger, who ran against Sebelius in 2002, has been under fire for taking a "big tent" approach to party politics.
At a November meeting of the Pachyderm Club in Wichita, Gietzen criticized Shallenburger for welcoming pro-abortion officials into the party. A few days later, Shallenburger reportedly offered his resignation to party officials.
On Saturday, the executive committee - including Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, State Treasurer Lynn Jenkins, Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh and House Speaker Doug Mays - was unanimous in a voice vote offering support to Shallenburger as party chairman.
Shallenburger welcomed the backing, and suggested it put aside any questions about the future of his chairmanship.
"If the executive committee questioned where we are, that makes it more difficult to win" in 2006, he said.
The committee also passed a resolution, intended to be part of the state party platform in 2006, stating that Republicans of different views on some issues should work together on common goals.
"Not one single issue identifies you as a Republican," Shallenburger said.
Derrick Sontag, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said Saturday that he was leaving that position. Sontag said he had informed party chairman Tim Shallenburger "within the last week" that he was taking a post as chief of staff to House Speaker Doug Mays. He replaces John Potter, who has been called up to serve in the National Guard. No replacement for the state party post has been chosen, Sontag said.
But Gietzen on Saturday disagreed, at least where abortion is concerned.
"We don't have any room for compromise on that," he said.
Another party rebel, Jim Mullins, of Lawrence, sounded a softer tone Saturday. He quit the GOP in 2004 to run on the Reform Party ticket against moderate Republican State Sen. Mark Buhler. The seat went instead to Marci Francisco, a Democrat.
"I hope (Saturday's meeting) means the executive committee is trying to heal the rift in the party," said Mullins, who is again a Republican, "because I think it's the right thing to do."
Now, Thornburgh said, GOP attention should turn to "how we're different from Democrats, as opposed to different from other Republicans."
GOP leaders are clearly frustrated at the attention paid to party squabbles. Kline noted that several Kansas Democrats were among the law enforcement officers who recently endorsed his 2006 re-election.
"You ought to call the Democratic chairman," Kline said, "and ask about the split in the Democratic Party."
A broader gathering of GOP activists and officials will be Jan. 27 and 28 in Topeka, to approve the party's 2006 election platform.