Topeka — Kansas Democrats are trying to build a team for the future.
The party struggled in the 1990s. Now led by two-term Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and two Democrats in Congress, its efforts to build on their victories started with recruiting candidates to challenge Republican incumbents this fall.
Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said competition for legislative seats is "healthy" and makes candidates and voters do their homework leading up to the election.
Democrats have candidates in 36 of 40 Senate districts and in 96 of 125 House districts. Their only consistent problems in finding people to run were in rural areas, particularly in western Kansas. Corcoran sees momentum building.
"We are confident that will continue," she said. "It is difficult because the salary is not a huge part of public service."
Republicans aren't impressed because the state still leans toward the GOP.
"Having candidates means nothing," said GOP Executive Director Christian Morgan. "It means they put somebody up with a pulse until they've proven something."
Recent history demonstrates Morgan's point.
In 2004, Democrats put up candidates in 33 Senate districts and 80 House districts. The numbers were even a little better in 2000: 36 Senate districts and 83 House districts.
But in the Senate, Democrats lost three seats in 2000, so that Republicans ended up with a 30-10 majority, and that margin didn't change after the 2004 election.
Republican majorities in the House have remained lopsided, too. The GOP's current 78-47 majority is the same as it was after the 2000 election.
Republicans are all but certain to hold onto their majorities this year, but Democrats have a chance to trim them.
Mike Gaughan, the state party's executive director, said candidates were motivated by a desire to act on health care, the economy and rising fuel prices.
Corcoran said recruiting is helped by the governor's accomplishments, such as increased funding for public schools and support for the military.
"It does help when we have a governor who is favorably thought of around the state," Corcoran said.
But Morgan said the governor's opposition to construction of two coal-fired power plants in southwest Kansas was the wrong stance on economic development. Supporters have said that project alone would have created hundreds of jobs and stimulated further growth in the western counties.
And Democrats still trail Republicans in voter registration by an almost 2-to-1 margin.
Sebelius and others have had to court the GOP's less-conservative wing for votes, especially in 2006 when they ousted Republican Attorney General Phill Kline.
Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist, said Democrats, especially in Johnson County, have relied on the GOP split to woo moderates and independent voters to get elected. Kline, appointed Johnson County district attorney after his loss in 2006, could be a factor in the county's legislative races as he seeks a full term as local prosecutor, Beatty said.
"If he wins the primary, does he bring out his supporters? Yes, but what about moderate Republicans who will show up to vote against him?" he said. "Some Democratic hopefuls are thinking that some moderate Republicans have gotten very open to the habit of voting Democratic."
Democrats also are hoping that enthusiasm generated by Barack Obama's presidential campaign translates to more seats in the Statehouse next session. Already the state has seen large numbers of young voters turn out for Democratic caucuses in February.