Opinion: Kansas’ back and forth governorship

“Take me back, take me way, way, way back …”

• Van Morrison, “On Hyndford Street”

January 1949. Republican Frank Carlson is sworn in as governor for a second two-year term, a seemingly ordinary event, given the GOP’s general dominance of Kansas politics.

Who could have predicted that Republicans and Democrats would alternate in power for the next 70-plus years, with neither party controlling the governorship for more than eight consecutive years? That’s right, the dominant Republican party has not held this office for more than eight straight years since 1949.

Let’s be clear; this does not mean that Kansas has ever been a two-party state. We haven’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964 nor a Democratic senator since the Franklin Roosevelt landslide of 1932. Still, every eight (sometimes four) years Kansans have consistently, and remarkably, switched their partisan horses, opting for the “outs” over the “ins.”

This alternation in power stands as a noteworthy historical quirk, but it’s far more than that. Kansas voters, while reliably Republican for most offices, have proven fully capable of steering a moderate course when governing the state is at stake. This pattern can tell us a lot about Kansas politics, past and present.

Most notably, Kansans hold their governors accountable, for both their style and substance. So, why?

First, Kansas is a small state in political terms. Of course, it covers a substantial geographic area, but politically the state is like a small town. We tend to think of our governors in personal terms – Kathleen and Sam, for example – and in 2018 the candidates quickly became Laura and Kris.

Second, Kansas voters view policies generated under the Capitol dome as the governor’s responsibility, even if legislators drive the process. All governors understand that when they sign a bill into law, the legislation becomes their responsibility, even if they failed to support that version. Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cut reductions didn’t completely reflect his preferences, but he had to embrace the bill presented to him.

Moreover, governors often face attacks for things that go undone, as challengers make them campaign issues. John Carlin forged a winning issue from utility costs, while Joan Finney took advantage of issues left over from Gov. Mike Hayden’s actions on property tax classification.

This year’s gubernatorial election powerfully demonstrated Kansans’ willingness — even desire — to give the “outs” a chance to govern. With Kris Kobach largely endorsing the unpopular Brownback tax cuts, Democrat Laura Kelly could campaign as the anti-Brownback/anti-Kobach/anti-far right Republican candidate. Her low-key style, based on 14 years in the Kansas Senate and an emphasis on bipartisan cooperation, provided a distinct alternative to Kobach’s scorched-earth approach.

Nevertheless, partisan alteration in power scarcely guarantees smooth sailing for any new governor. Hayden, who ultimately succeeded in winning major legislative battles, took two years to figure out how best to work with a moderate Republican/Democratic legislature. Finney never figured it out, as lawmakers overrode dozens of her vetoes.

This year’s alternation in power is distinct, however, in that Kelly must contend with the failed results of the Brownback years, not just on tax policies, where considerable progress has occurred since 2016, but in rebuilding the infrastructure and personnel base of Kansas government.

The past eight years have witnessed the degradation of governance and have increased its partisanship. Kelly and the Republican Legislature must find a way to re-establish faith in government. We should fervently root for their success in this critical task, one that past chief executives did not need to address as they came into office.

— Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.


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