Opinion: Democrats’ playbook wins in Wichita
Wichita’s mayoral election is supposed to be nonpartisan, but that virtually disappeared in this year’s campaign. Mayor-elect Brandon Whipple has served since 2012 as a Democratic member of the Kansas House. Before that, he was vice-chair of the Sedgwick County Democratic Party. His winning strategy came straight from the Kansas Democrats’ playbook. Whipple downplayed his party affiliation and played up accountability and good government, while the city’s Republican establishment tried to throw their weight behind incumbent Jeff Longwell. Whipple’s upset looks remarkably similar to the gubernatorial campaigns of Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Laura Kelly, both Democrats who pulled off wins in deep-red Kansas.
Like Sebelius and Kelly, Whipple won his election by emphasizing themes that cross party lines, such as improving transportation and putting the city’s budget online. He also benefited from the ham-fisted gaffes of his opponents. Controversy surrounding Longwell’s involvement in a last-minute, no-bid contract to upgrade a water treatment plant made the perfect foil for Whipple’s focus on efficient administration. At 37 years old, Whipple’s relative youth also reinforced his time-for-a-change message. Having been involved in political action since college, Whipple knew how to stick to his message. The same cannot be said for his opponents’ supporters, who miscalculated badly.
The Sedgwick County Republican Party tried to help Longwell. Unaccountable dark money funded a harsh attack ad against Whipple, making unfounded allegations about his sex life. Apparently that was not bad enough, so two area Republicans then got into a protracted, heavily publicized, and irresolvable you say-I say squabble about who was responsible for the ad. This mess probably helped Whipple — not to mention his libel lawsuit. Meanwhile, a write-in candidate backed by two former mayors helped to split the vote. Whipple won with 46%, a plurality but not a majority.
What does this mean for Kansas? First, it shows that the Sebelius-Kelly playbook works in this state’s largest city. To make this winning formula, downplay your party affiliation, stress public improvements and efficient administration, and run against an entrenched but divided Republican Party.
It also helps when the Republicans make embarrassing mistakes, such as Kris Kobach’s courtroom antics in 2018 and Wichita Republicans’ finger-pointing this time. Both Kelly and Whipple also faced a third candidate who played the potential spoiler. It is unclear whether wild cards Greg Orman and Lyndy Wells ultimately helped or hurt Kelly and Whipple, but they certainly did keep things interesting.
There is yet another similarity between the mayor and the governor. In this time of angry voters and hyper-partisan voting, governors continue to be one office for which voters will cross party lines. Currently, America’s most popular governors are blue state Republicans: Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland, and Phil Scott of Vermont. Kelly cannot quite match their numbers, but her approval ratings are still well above those of Kansas’ last elected governor, Sam Brownback.
When it comes to state and local chief executives, many voters still value good administration over partisanship. These offices can serve as vestiges of bipartisanship and good government, in a time when these values would seem obsolete anywhere else.
Meanwhile, back in Wichita, Whipple is about to face his next test. Can he govern as well as he campaigned?
— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.