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Four things to watch for at Kansas Democrats’ DemoFest

The Kansas Democratic Party will gather in Wichita this weekend for its annual mid-year DemoFest convention.

Usually in odd-numbered years, these conventions can be something of a yawner. But this year could be different, with the 2016 elections coming up, and internal angst growing within the party over its three consecutive "clean-sweep" losses to Republicans.

So here are four things that political junkies of all stripes will be watching for this weekend:

Paul Davis: Made a surprisingly strong run for governor in 2014 against incumbent Republican Sam Brownback, and led in most polls up until the final weeks of the campaign. The party has sent out emails inviting Democrats to "join him" at DemoFest, although he's not officially listed on any of the programs. Still, he's expected to show up, and a lot of people will be watching for signals or announcements about any future political ambitions he may have.

The 'dark money' question: Officially, most Democrats are still against it. But the U.S. Supreme Court has said it's legal, and Democrats know a lot of their candidates have been crushed in recent elections under the weight of dark money flowing into campaigns from conservative groups with ties to Koch Industries.

Will Democrats stop complaining about dark money and finally decide to go get some? Well, it's worth noting that the keynote speaker at Saturday's banquet will be former Michigan Congressman Mark Schauer, who now heads Advantage 2020, a super-PAC dedicated to helping Democrats win state legislative races.

Question two on that subject: Can Kansas Democrats convince Schauer to spend any of that PAC money here?

New candidates: We're still more than a year out from the 2016 elections, but Democrats have already started rolling out some candidates who plan to challenge sitting Republicans next year. Will any more make announcements at DemoFest, including potential congressional candidates?

New message: For years, Kansas Democrats have branded themselves as the "pro-education" party. But lately, that hasn't been enough to win on a statewide basis. And the 2014 elections pretty much proved that their other main message, "Brownback = Bad," isn't enough either.

Some Democrats have urged party leaders to focus elsewhere — they already have the "pro-education" vote — and start talking more forcefully about bread-and-butter issues: tax fairness; rural development; highways; the minimum wage; and health care.

Larry Meeker, the new party chairman, has tried running a new theme up the flagpole, "Red State Democrats," emphasizing the idea that they recognize Kansas is a conservative state, and therefore trying to play down the "liberal" label they're often tagged with.

We're hoping get a better sense of how well that plays with the party faithful this weekend.

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Burroughs letter not seen as apology, Lawrence Democrats say

Quite a bit of fuss was made this week over a letter from House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs that some characterized as an apology over the way he handled the 2015 legislative session.

But Lawrence-area Democrats said they didn't take it that way, and a spokeswoman for Burroughs said it was certainly not meant as any kind of "mea culpa." Rather, they said, it was merely an attempt to get feedback about how the session went, and gather input about how members want to approach the 2016 session.

First, some context: Burroughs, who is from Kansas City, Kan., was in his first session as minority leader this year. He succeeded former Rep. Paul Davis of Lawrence who stepped down last year in an unsuccessful bid for governor. (Democrats also lost five seats in the House in that same election.) The session lasted a record-breaking 113 days, and to say that Democrats were steamrolled in it might be an understatement.

By the time it all ended, the Republican-dominated Legislature had done away with the K-12 school finance formula and replaced it with block grants that locked in funding cuts for the next two years. It also passed new restrictions on abortion, dramatic restrictions on how welfare recipients can spend their benefits, and a tax-and-spending package that raised sales taxes while preserving Gov. Sam Brownback's controversial policy of eliminating income taxes for business owners.

So it was in that context that Burroughs mailed out what some Democrats described as an apology letter, but others say was a fairly typical post-session, postmortem letter to rally the troops and gear up for the next battle.

After some obligatory courtesies and thank-yous, Burroughs turns to topic of the topic at hand:

" While it would be easy to focus on our successes, I believe it is through reflection on the challenges we faced that we can grow and improve both as individuals and as a caucus. As your leader, it is my goal to make decisions in the best interest of our caucus, the Democratic Party, and the State of Kansas. If at any point in time I fell short of your expectations, I am sorry. I commit to continued improvement and I welcome your feedback. There are far too many battles ahead to be complacent."

Now, a little more context: Burroughs won the leadership post in a contested race against Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita. And it's no secret that the two men have different political styles and different management styles. Ward is known for being more aggressive and confrontational in criticizing conservative Republican policies; Burroughs is considered more conciliatory, although no less committed to Democratic Party ideals. Both had served in the past as assistant minority leaders.

The story about Burroughs' letter first broke on the Wichita Eagle's website, which characterized it as an apology letter by reporting: "The top Democrat in the Kansas House has sent a letter to his caucus apologizing if he fell short of their expectations and requesting their feedback ahead of the next session."

Ward was quoted heavily in that story, as were other Wichita-area Democrats. That story was picked up by the Associated Press, and AP's version of it was carried in the Journal-World with the headline, 'Top Democrat in Kansas House apologizes to caucus.

There were times during the session when Ward and others wanted to order roll-call votes on various issues, and to offer amendments — particularly about Medicaid expansion — that would have forced conservative Republicans to put their names on a "no" vote. Such tactics, routinely practiced by members on all sides, are commonly known as "postcard votes" because they make easy fodder for election-year postcards.

Burroughs, however, generally resisted the temptation, believing such tactics only would have alienated moderate Republicans, whom Democrats often need as allies, even though in the current Legislature all the Democrats and all the moderate Republicans put together still don't form a working majority.

But the idea that Burroughs' letter was an "apology letter" was not universally shared among other Democrats, particularly those from Lawrence.

Rep. Barbara Ballard, for example, who serves as the Democrats' caucus chair (meaning she leads caucus meetings whenever they get together to discuss strategy) wasn't sure what was being referred to when asked if she'd received the "apology letter."

"I received a letter, but I wouldn't call it an apology letter," she said. She added that all of the decisions about how Democrats would respond to the Republican agenda were run through the entire leadership team.

Rep. John Wilson also said he was surprised by the characterization. "No, I didn't see it as an apology letter," he said in an email.

Rep. Boog Highberger, who was serving his first session in the Legislature (he succeeded Davis in the 46th District) also declined to call it an apology. "I think it was an acknowledgement that we didn't all agree on every single thing," he said.

But he also conceded that Democrats could have been more confrontational with conservatives, at least on some issues.

"i think we should have pushed harder for Medicaid expansion," he said. "We could have pressed harder on a number of issues. But I give the minority leader some credit. There's a learning curve on every job."


Challenges flared in Senate Democratic leadership races

While most eyes were on the Republican leadership races in the House and Senate on Monday, challenges flared up in the Senate Democratic caucus.

Outnumbered by Republicans 32-8, Senate Democrats generally stick together on issues and try to build coalitions with either moderate or conservative Republicans.

On Monday, Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, was challenged by state Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City.

Hensley has been in the Legislature 35 years; the past 20 years in the Senate, and minority leader since 1996.

Holland just won re-election to his second term in the Senate after having served in the House. In 2010, he was the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, losing to Gov. Sam Brownback.

Hensley and Holland tied 4-4 on the first ballot for minority leader, and then Hensley won 5-3.

But state Sen. Laura Kelley, D-Topeka, who just won a tough re-election campaign during the November general election, was upended by state Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, for the assistant minority leader position. They also were tied 4-4 on the first ballot and then Francisco won 5-3.

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