Kansas Republicans elect delegates but struggle to unite behind Trump

photo by: Peter Hancock

Members of the Kansas Republican Party state committee cast ballots Saturday for 25 at-large delegates who will go to the GOP national convention in July. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won most of the delegates from Kansas, and the question now is whether the party can unite behind the presumptive nominee Donald Trump.

TOPEKA — Kansas Republican Party leaders selected their final 25 delegates to the upcoming national convention, but it remains an open question whether the state party can unite behind presumptive nominee Donald Trump.

“I think we’ll have that discussion. We’ll probably caucus together and come up with a candidate that we’re going to support,” said State Sen. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, who was previously chosen as a delegate from the 1st Congressional District. “It may or may not be Donald Trump.”

Trump is now the only GOP candidate with a mathematical chance of securing enough delegates to win on the first ballot, and all of his rivals have now suspended their campaigns.

But Kansas Republican voters went overwhelmingly for his main rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, in the March 5 caucuses. Cruz is a leader of the Tea Party movement in Congress and a favorite among evangelical Christian conservatives who make up the bulk of the state’s GOP voters, and especially the state party leadership.

photo by: Peter Hancock

Dalton Glasscock, right, of the Kansas Federation of College Republicans challenges a proposal by Jeffrey Locke, left, to add a plank to the Kansas Republican Party's platform supporting the use of the death penalty in capital murder cases. Locke's proposal failed to win a majority.

Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion organization, said that for people in her wing of the party, the jury is still out on Trump.

“If the party coalesces around him, then I think it’ll be OK,” she said. “No one was desiring this, but we’re watching to see how things are going.”

The concern among Republicans is not that Trump might lose Kansas, a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. Rather, it’s that if Trump fails to motivate Christian conservatives in Kansas to vote for him, many of them could stay home on Election Day, and that could impact other Republicans on the ballot, especially those in tight state legislative races.

“I think that’s a legitimate concern,” said State Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita, who will take over as the state party’s new national committeeman after the convention. “I think that’s a real concern among evangelical voters too. I hope that’s not the case because we have great candidates down the ballot.”

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who ruffled feathers in the state party when he came out early to support Trump — the only statewide elected Republican in Kansas to do so — said he thinks the party and its voters will eventually come around.

“I think the one thing that will cause evangelical Republicans around the country to unite behind Trump is the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said. “The specter of a Hillary Clinton appointee on the U.S. Supreme Court will doom the pro-life movement for years. And that alone is sufficient to bring many of my evangelical cohorts behind Trump.”

Platform fight

In addition to choosing delegates, the GOP state committee also adopted a new, revised party platform, along with a resolution urging Republicans to vote against retaining four Kansas Supreme Court justices.

Although the state committee was nearly unanimous in criticizing the Kansas Supreme Court over its 2014 decision vacating the death sentences of two convicted mass murderers, brothers Jonathan and Reginald Carr, it was much more divided over the issue of the death penalty itself.

In fact, a proposed addition to the platform supporting the use of the death penalty in capital murder cases failed on a closely divided vote, 75-90, with one abstention.

The resolution, which passed with only one dissenting vote, urges Republicans to oppose retaining four Supreme Court justices on the November ballot, primarily over their role in the controversial Carr brothers decisions. It names Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, and Associate Justices Carol Beier, Dan Biles and Marla Luckert, who all voted to vacate the death sentences.

That resolution may represent the first time, in the modern era at least, that a state party has come out so vocally on one side or another of a judicial retention vote. Supreme Court justices in Kansas are appointed by the governor from a list of three nominees who are screened by the nonpartisan Supreme Court Nominating Commission.

But for the last several years, the party’s platform has been silent on the issue of the death penalty, and Saturday’s vote showed there is growing discomfort with the death penalty within the party, even among conservative Republicans.

“We need a voice for people that are victims, and (we need to) have a voice for the families that have had the worst happen to them,” said Jeffrey Locke, of Satanta, who proposed the language.

Last summer, however, the Kansas Federation of College Republicans, an official group within the state party, adopted its own resolution calling for repeal of the death penalty, saying it’s inconsistent with the party’s “pro-life” views on abortion.

“There was a poll done recently that found only 35 percent of Christian millennials support the death penalty,” said Dalton Glasscock, a Wichita State University student and member of the College Republicans group. “Speaking on behalf of my generation, I would recommend the option of allowing us to choose whether we are for or against it.”

The vote defeating the proposed change means the platform remains as it has been, with its only statement regarding criminal punishment saying, “The judicial system must impose swift and fair punishment for all crimes, violent and non-violent.”