Kansas leaning further to right

Conservatives, moderates both battling to claim 'traditional' mantle

? Kansas is currently on a right-wing joyride.

Name an idea that carries the right-wing label, and it’s getting serious play in Kansas.

Constitutional ban on gay marriage – done.

Science standards critical of evolution – done.

Investigating abortion clinics – done.

Obstacles to sex education – in the works.

Politically untouchable ultra-conservative congressmen – ongoing.

The list goes on.

Right-wing causes have always had varying degrees of success in Kansas, but lately they are rolling fast and furious.

Jon Wefald, president of Kansas State University, seemed exasperated at a recent Board of Regents meeting when discussing increasing efforts by anti-tax groups to amend the Kansas Constitution to install a spending cap.

“Kansans are not wild-eyed spenders. We don’t need this,” Wefald said.

Social conservatives rule

Some say the state’s political climate should come as no surprise because Kansans are overwhelmingly Republican and generally considered conservative.

So-called conservatives and moderates have been duking it out for decades in Kansas.

But political scientists say there are conservatives and then there are conservatives.

Some see another conservatism gaining strength in the state, which for lack of a better term is called social conservativism.

“The social conservatives don’t see themselves as the old definition of conservatism,” said Bob Beatty, political science professor at Washburn University.

“They are movement conservatives, revolutionaries, and they are willing to use the state to accomplish their goals,” Beatty said.

Traditionally, conservatives have been associated with fiscal prudence, turning a cautious eye to new trends.

But new conservatives have tossed that aside, Beatty said, if it furthers their agenda on social issues.

For example, he said, traditional conservatives would not have hired Bob Corkins as state education commissioner because he lacked qualifications for the $140,000-a-year job. Traditional conservatives wouldn’t charge taxpayers $339 a night for six nights in a resort hotel room to attend a conference, as school board member Connie Morris did. She later repaid the expense after the media reported about the Miami trip.

But Corkins satisfies the social conservative agenda to push for tax funding of private schools, and Morris has gained accolades from social conservative circles for her opposition to teaching the children of illegal immigrants, Beatty said.

The backlash

But the movement from fiscal to social issues has turned off many so-called moderate Republicans.

“The social conservative wing of the Republican Party seems to be doing quite well and may be starting to drive out some moderate Republicans from the party,” Beatty said.

Their dominance within the state Republican Party prompted Johnson County Dist. Atty. Paul Morrison to become a Democrat to have a chance to take on Atty. Gen. Phill Kline in the November 2006 election. The conventional wisdom was that Morrison couldn’t have defeated Kline in the GOP primary because it is dominated by social conservatives.

Morrison said Kline, an ardent opponent of abortion who has launched an investigation into abortion clinics, had strayed from the office’s role to focus on law enforcement and not political agendas. Kline has said he was investigating alleged crimes.

David Adkins, a former state senator who was defeated by Kline in the 2002 GOP primary, said Morrison’s move showed frustration among moderates. But will it mean more will switch to the Democratic Party?

“A lot of Republicans will stay to vote in the Republican Party primary to try to moderate the views of nominees,” he said. But in the general election, if there are no moderate Republicans to vote for, he said, they will vote for the Democrat.

“(Gov.) Kathleen Sebelius has benefitted from that as has (U.S. Rep.) Dennis Moore,” he said. Both Democrats have won elections by wooing moderate Republicans.

Clear lines

A group called the Kansas Traditional Republican Majority announced last week it would get involved in fund-raising and campaigning to counter what it called “radical groups” that are involved in Republican Party politics in Kansas.

Those groups named by KTRM included the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity.

Both are anti-tax groups linked to the state’s top Republican officeholder, U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, who is one of the most socially conservative lawmakers in the country and has indicated he may run for president, and Wichita-based Koch Industries, which funds numerous conservative and libertarian think tanks and whose owners have been longtime movers and shakers in Kansas politics.

David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries, helped found Americans for Prosperity and serves as its board chairman. He was the Libertarian Party candidate for vice president of the U.S. in 1980.

The Koch family have been longtime supporters of Brownback, whose former chief of staff David Kensinger runs the Club for Growth. Both the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity were active in many of the same legislative campaigns in Kansas last year.

Ryan Wright, the executive director of the Kansas Traditional Republican Majority, said the party had strayed so far from its roots that a venerated Kansan, former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, would have trouble winning a GOP primary today.

But the conservative Kansas Republican Assembly blasted the group. KRA Director Charlotte Esau called it a sham organization “who will talk Republican before the election and vote Democrat once in office.”

Meanwhile, another group has formed to reclaim, as it says, the core of mainstream Kansas values. The nonpartisan Kansas Alliance for Education, headed by lifelong Republican Don Hineman, is dedicated to unseating the 6-4 majority on the state school board.

Eyes on Shallenburger

The dissension within the GOP ranks has increased the pressure on state Republican Party Chairman Tim Shallenburger.

Shallenburger, widely known as a conservative Republican who angered many moderates when he was House speaker, is now taking heat from his right flank.

Mark Gietzen of Wichita, head of Kansas Coalition for Life, has called for Shallenburger to step down as chairman because he accepts pro-abortion-rights candidates in the GOP.

“There’s no difference between us and the Democrats right now,” Gietzen said.

“The defining issue of our era is the abortion issue. If you’re pro-choice then you are in the wrong party. If not, then what on earth does it mean to be a Republican?” he asked.

Gietzen has formed a group called the Kansas Republican Action Assembly to counter the Kansas Republican Assembly, which has supported Shallenburger.

But Shallenburger said it’s not just conservatives who were changing.

“The entire spectrum has changed. There are moderate Republicans who are just downright liberal, and there are conservative Republicans who are just way out there,” he said.

But some social conservatives are over-reaching, he said.

For example, he said he found it confounding that some Christian groups criticized President Bush for using the word “holiday” instead of Christmas in his seasonal card.

“Eight years ago that wouldn’t have happened,” he said. “We were just so happy to have George Bush instead of Bill Clinton.”

With that kind of variance within the GOP, he said it’s hard to keep everyone inside the “big tent.”

“Kansas is a big state. It does make it difficult to keep the holes patched because we have a lot of holes,” he said.