Kansas GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold reflects on his 6-year run
photo by: Associated Press
TOPEKA — The Kansas Republican Party will have new leadership for the first time in six years when the state committee gathers at its annual convention in February.
Kelly Arnold, the Wichita-based operative who has served as chairman since 2013, has announced that he will not seek another term in that office.
“Really, it’s time,” Arnold said in a phone interview this week. “This is a decision I had kind of personally and internally made several months back. And part of it is, by the time I get done, I will have been the longest-serving chairman in Kansas Republican Party history.”
Arnold, who also serves as Sedgwick County clerk, was first elected vice chairman of the state party in 2011, following the first of the party’s string of “clean sweep” elections in which Republicans won every statewide and federal race in Kansas. Before that, he had served eight years as chairman of the Sedgwick County Republican Party.
photo by: AP Photo/John Hanna, File
In 2013, he was named party chairman and has presided over the party’s campaigns over the next four election cycles, including 2018 when Democrats finally broke the “clean sweep” streak with the election of Gov.-elect Laura Kelly and U.S. Rep.-elect Sharice Davids.
“And we’ve had supermajorities in the (Kansas) House and Senate as well, which was obviously very key to getting legislation done,” Arnold said.
Although party chairs are not as visible to the general public as candidates themselves, they play a critical role in those campaigns by helping to raise money and organizing teams of volunteers who go around knocking on doors, calling voters and helping get people to the polls on Election Day.
And in the time that Arnold fulfilled that role, he earned the respect of his counterparts across the aisle.
“Being a state party chair is one of the toughest, most demanding jobs in politics. And Kelly proved himself to be a strong and determined leader, who ably led the Republican Party for a number of years,” Kansas Democratic Party executive director Ethan Corson said in an email.
Of all the election cycles that Arnold worked on over those years, he said the 2014 cycle was probably the toughest. That was the year Gov. Sam Brownback faced a tough re-election challenge from Lawrence Democrat Paul Davis, and embattled U.S. Sen Pat Roberts was running behind in the polls against independent candidate Greg Orman.
Both of those races drew national attention, especially the U.S. Senate race, but in the end, Republicans ended up winning both contests.
“We really built a strong ‘clean-sweep’ campaign machine that election cycle,” Arnold said. “We not only won those races, we picked up House races we weren’t even expecting to pick up. I think we added five additional Republican House seats that year and that was more than we had expected. It was probably one of the biggest key races that we ran.”
That election was also marked by a huge influx of outside money from national Republican organizations, something Arnold said Kansas had not seen prior to that year.
“When I first got involved in Kansas Republican Party politics, the national parties and groups didn’t even look at Kansas,” Arnold said. “They just kind of moved on. 2014 is what set a new bar in national organizations getting involved in Kansas campaigns.”
“The national organizations, between the Brownback campaign and the Roberts campaign, I think it was over $20 million that was put into those races,” he said. “So we were able to build and collect a huge data machine after that election with all the work that went into those two races.”
The influence of outside money in Kansas politics continued into the 2018 cycle, when groups such as the Congressional Leadership Fund poured millions of dollars into congressional campaigns in the 2nd and 3rd District races in eastern Kansas.
Reflecting back, Arnold said he has mixed feelings about that new trend.
“It is OK, and it is important that the national organizations have Kansas as one of their states that they want to invest in, because I think Kansas is worth investing into,” he said. “But at the same time, we want our Republican Party so strong that we can carry the day with our own work that we do.”
In addition to Arnold stepping down, Kansas GOP vice chairwoman Ashley Hutchinson has also said she will not seek another term, opening the door for an entirely new leadership team to take charge of the party heading in to the 2020 election cycle.
Although a number of people are said to be interested in the jobs, no clear front-runner seems to have emerged.
“We’re leaving the door open for anybody that would like to step up and run a campaign,” Arnold said. “We believe that there are a lot of other good Republican party operatives that would be good at the position of chair.”