Topeka Democrats in Kansas lost a high-profile convert, a proven money-raiser and someone with a bright political future when Attorney General Paul Morrison became embroiled in the sex scandal that prompted his resignation.
Some Democrats don't think their party will suffer lasting damage because Morrison's announced he will step down Jan. 31 over an extramarital affair with a former subordinate. But some Republicans believe Morrison's problems will help the GOP.
The state Republican Party is trying to tie the scandal to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and other prominent Democrats who helped persuade Morrison to switch parties to unseat incumbent Phill Kline in the attorney general's race last year. The state GOP also believes Morrison will be an issue in legislative contests next year, when all 40 Senate and 125 House seats will be on the ballot.
"We're not going to let voters forget about it," said Christian Morgan, the state GOP's executive director.
Democrats don't think Morrison's problems will be an issue for the party or its candidates, given his swift decision to resign, only six days after acknowledging the affair. Lee Kinch, a Wichita-area attorney who's a member of the Democratic National Committee, said statements such as Morgan's are "partisan nonsense."
"I don't believe there's been any permanent damage done," Kinch said Saturday. "Voters are going to be thoughtful about who they vote for."
Morrison acknowledged having an affair with Linda Carter, formerly the director of administration for the Johnson County district attorney's office. He was district attorney for 18 years before taking office as attorney general in January. He was elected to the county office as a Republican, and the county's GOP chose Kline to replace him as district attorney.
Carter said the affair began in September 2005 and lasted two years - which means it continued while Morrison ran for attorney general and after he became attorney general. She filed a civil rights claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in November, three weeks before leaving her job in Johnson County.
She accuses Morrison, her supervisor when the affair began, of sexual harassment. She alleges he tried to use her to influence a federal lawsuit filed by employees Kline dismissed after becoming district attorney and that Morrison sought sensitive information about Kline's activities. Morrison has denied those allegations.
Carter detailed her allegations in a signed statement obtained by The Topeka Capital-Journal.
Kline plans to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Morrison's conduct and has said the investigation will deal with allegations of blackmail and telephone harassment. Besides the EEOC, the state board that reviews allegations of misconduct against attorneys also is investigating.
House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, D-Greensburg, questioned whether Morrison made his decision to resign too quickly because, "Big decisions are usually better made with the perspective of time."
He said of his constituents: "They were paying attention, but they weren't as consumed by it as, say, people right around the Capitol."
But Kinch said Morrison couldn't have remained an effective attorney general had he decided to stay in office.
"It wouldn't have been helpful for the Democratic Party. It would have prolonged the pain," he said. "The story would have remained on the front page."
Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist, said Morrison could have had the same effect on Kansas Democrats as President Clinton did for Democrats in 2000 by refusing to step aside following his own sex scandal and impeachment.
"Who paid the price? Al Gore," Beatty said. "I think most people would agree that the Democrats lost the presidency because of Clinton, the fatigue over that scandal."
Beatty said Democrats' chances for retaining the attorney general's office depend on whom Sebelius appoints to fill the remaining three years of Morrison's four-year term.
Morrison's experience as a prosecutor made him seem an ideal candidate, and his Republican history helped attract independent and moderate Republican voters. He raised $2.39 million in cash contributions in 2005 and 2006, nearly twice as much as Kline, and won almost 59 percent of the vote.
"The Democratic Party is thin in a pool of statewide candidates to run for such things as the U.S. Senate," said Joe Aistrup, head of Kansas State University's Political Science Department. "This hurts the party. The party invested heavily in him."
Legislators and others have mentioned Securities Commissioner Chris Biggs as a potential replacement for Morrison. Biggs, a former Geary County prosecutor, narrowly lost to Kline in 2002.
Another possible candidate is Charles Branson, the Douglas County district attorney. There had been speculation that Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson would run, but he has said he is not.
"Three years is a long time," Beatty said. "If a replacement is found who can do a fairly good job fairly quickly, the credibility can come back."
Morgan said Kansans need to watch Sebelius' appointment and whether the appointment process is open. He added that Democrats must answer for pro-Morrison statements and that Sebelius and others face questions about what they knew about Morrison's problems before he began running for attorney general.
Morgan said the Morrison scandal could be enough of a drag to hurt even Democratic congressional candidates, such as Rep. Nancy Boyda, who won a close 2nd District race last year.
But Kinch said Sebelius and other Democrats such as state Chairman Larry Gates can't be pulled into Morrison's problems although they recruited him.
"He was thoroughly vetted," Kinch said. "He was not forthcoming about potential problems, and you can't blame the governor or Larry Gates or others for that."