Analysis: Vice president from Kansas? Sebelius’ success as governor attracts national attention

Barack Obama and Kathleen Sebelius

When it comes to politics, it has always been difficult to determine whether Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is just plain lucky or good – or a combination of both.

As a Democrat, she has managed to win four statewide elections in a state that is overwhelmingly Republican.

Sebelius supports a woman’s right to an abortion. She vetoed concealed carry handgun legislation (and was overturned by the Legislature). She opposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters. Most recently, the governor blocked the construction of two coal-fired electric power plants that had the support of nearly every business and labor group in the state. And she has proposed tax increases that were rebuffed by the Legislature.

While her positions would seem to be political suicide in conservative Kansas, she has enjoyed high approval ratings, winning her last election, in 2006, by a landslide. And she is a rising star on the national scene, as evidenced by her consideration as a vice presidential running mate with U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

How does she do it?

For one thing, Sebelius has been a master at taking advantage of the schism in the Kansas Republican Party – the constant warfare between the so-called conservatives and so-called moderates. And she has worked hard to focus on issues that have widespread appeal to most Kansans, such as education and health care.

Her current lieutenant governor, Mark Parkinson, was a former state GOP chairman who switched parties to run with her, saying, “I decided I’d rather spend time building great universities than wondering if Charles Darwin was right.”

GOP in-fighting

During her administration, the Republican Party’s bickering over social issues crossed with another major issue: education. And that fell in Sebelius’ favor.

While conservative Republicans on the State Board of Education were making worldwide headlines denouncing evolution, Sebelius and lawmakers and the Kansas Supreme Court wrestled for more than a year on something that was probably more significant to most Kansans: how schools are funded.

It was a bruising battle, but in the end Sebelius, Democrats and some moderate Republicans pushed through a $466 million, three-year commitment that satisfied the court and by most measures has been dubbed a success as student test scores have improved.

In fact, many thought Sebelius’ election as governor in 2002 was due in large part to her promise not to cut school funding as the state faced a nearly $1 billion shortfall. Her opponent, conservative Republican Tim Shallenburger, had said schools could probably handle a small reduction.

Better prepared

In addition to taking advantage of GOP in-fighting, Sebelius does her homework.

“She really cares about governing,” said Kansas University political science professor Burdett Loomis, who worked for Sebelius during her first term as governor.

“That is why Obama likes her; she’s good on politics and policy. He could give her big projects to take care of and not worry about it,” Loomis said.

Prior to her election as governor, Sebelius gained national attention when as insurance commissioner she blocked the proposed purchase of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas by Anthem Insurance Cos.

It was the first time the Indianapolis-based Anthem, which had bought Blue Cross plans in several states, had been rebuffed by a state insurance commissioner.

The move was hailed by consumer advocates. Sebelius said the purchase would have raised rates for Blue Cross Kansas customers while depleting the company’s surplus. Eventually, the state Supreme Court backed up her decision.

In 1994 – President Clinton’s first midterm election – at a time when Democrats were being punished at the polls, Sebelius defeated an entrenched Republican incumbent for state insurance commissioner. It represented the only statewide Democratic victory against a Republican incumbent in the nation.

During her tenure as insurance commissioner, she refused contributions from the insurance industry. Prior to that she had been a House member from a well-to-do section of Topeka.

What’s in a name?

While a hard-working official, Sebelius has also benefited from her name. Married to Gary Sebelius, the son of a longtime Republican Kansas congressman from the Big First District, the Sebelius brand still carries sway in many parts of Kansas.

And although she opposed the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, she lucked out by not having to run for re-election when the proposal was on the ballot.

That assist came courtesy of an unlikely group. Conservative ministers who pushed for the measure had demanded that the Legislature put it on the ballot quickly, so the amendment was approved in April 2005 instead of being on the November 2006 ballot when Sebelius faced voters.

During the last legislative session, Sebelius again went counter to the wishes of the Legislature by vetoing bills that would have required construction of the two 700-megawatt coal-burning plants in southwest Kansas. Sebelius’ stated concerns about carbon dioxide emissions angered Kansas supporters of the project but certainly increased her national profile as more Americans began to accept that climate change was occurring and something needed to be done about it. Lawmakers failed to overturn her vetoes on that issue.

Despite elective victories, Sebelius has certainly sustained setbacks – the most public being her support of Paul Morrison, a Republican who turned Democrat and then defeated conservative Republican Attorney General Phill Kline in 2006. But early this year, Morrison resigned from office following revelations of a sex scandal.

When news of the scandal erupted, Sebelius said if the allegations were true, Morrison needed to step down. He announced his resignation within the week, and Sebelius appointed former Douglas County District Court Judge Stephen Six to the position.