Opinion: A place for moderate Republicans?

The 2020 elections for the Kansas Legislature could be perilous for moderate Republicans. Their political relevance is at stake, with huge implications for Kansas politics.

Most “moderate” Republican lawmakers in Topeka are actually pretty conservative. Most typically vote against abortion access, LGBT equality and firearms regulations. Most voted with conservatives to limit Gov. Laura Kelly’s COVID-19 emergency powers. Most typically vote with conservatives on procedure to block Democratic policy ideas.

Instead, Medicaid expansion, taxes, the budget and education typically divide moderate and conservative Republicans lately. Conservatives tend to view the Sam Brownback policy legacy more favorably than moderates, but also realize Brownback himself is politically toxic.

Moderate Republicans prospered in 2016 when they had Brownback to run against, but suffered losses in 2018 House primaries. Moderate Republican senators from that 2016 wave face their first reelection this year. Can they win Republican voters again without Brownback looming?

Moderate Republicans have two key electoral challenges facing them lately.

First, their traditional voter base of higher income, higher education whites is disappearing from Republican primaries. Since 2000, whites with college degrees have been trending Democratic, whereas those without have been trending Republican. Even in Kansas, the education gap is a bigger partisan divide among whites than the gender gap.

College-educated whites gravitate toward suburbia and small cities. In these communities, many voters who once supported moderates in Republican primaries now skip those primaries and vote Democratic.

In populous Johnson County, for example, this realignment has hit moderate Republicans hard recently — losses to conservatives in primaries and to Democrats in general elections, and several party switches among lawmakers. Moderate Republicans there can no longer rely on an outdated Y2K status quo where Democrats play second fiddle to them.

Second, rural Kansas has become more Republican. But in many parts of rural Kansas where the primary is now the key election, moderate Republicans have traditionally been weak and reluctant to contest primaries. This has advantaged conservatives.

Take southeast Kansas. Voters there have veered sharply Republican lately as working class whites realign to the Republicans and increasingly prioritize cultural over economic issues. But despite rising Republican fortunes there, moderates hardly contest primaries. The net result: Many rural districts that once reliably sent moderate Democrats to Topeka now reliably send conservative Republicans.

Moderates have fared better in central and western Kansas, but could suffer substantial setbacks there this August.

Why does this matter? Rural and small-town Kansas is the main battleground for August Republican primaries. Moderate Republicans are largely on the defense there, especially in Senate races. If conservatives flip those rural seats from moderates in primaries, that likely guarantees conservatives gains in the Legislature.

Democrats are gunning for legislative gains in November — mostly against conservatives — when the action shifts to suburbs and small cities.

However, even if Democrats gain seats in November, the Kansas Legislature could actually become more conservative in 2021 if moderate Republicans are decimated in rural Kansas primaries. Even with Democratic gains, it could become harder to pass Medicaid expansion or prevent conservatives from resuscitating Brownback-era policies. Topeka could become even more gridlocked.

Moderate Republicans face an immense test in 2020. Their fate in primaries — typically low turnout events — could substantially reshape politics in Topeka and affect the lives of all Kansans. The test date of Aug. 4 is approaching rapidly.

— Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.


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