Opinion: Learning to be ready for the unlikely

At a recent conference at Wichita State University, four political observers were asked to make their predictions for next week’s elections. All four said they believed Sharice Davids would win reelection in the 3rd Congressional District; three out of the four said they believed Gov. Laura Kelly would be reelected; and two out of the four said they believed Chris Mann would defeat Kris Kobach and be elected Kansas’ attorney general. But further down the ballot? The agreement was near unanimous: Tuesday will likely be a terrible night for the Democrats.

“Near unanimous,” of course, means at least one voice of dissent. The dissenter was me.

Am I confident in my belief that Kansas, come Tuesday, may provide national Democrats with some tiny, consoling glimmers of blue during a rough night? Not remotely. So why bother saying so, when the usual political science variables — a midterm election during the first term of an unpopular president at a time of high inflation — point toward a Democratic bloodbath?

In speaking out on behalf of such an unlikely result, the lessons of two elections are on my mind.

First, the August vote on the “Value Them Both” amendment. The size of that abortion-rights victory has been much commented on — but more relevant is also how much of a surprise it was.

There was no precedent anywhere for that election: a straight-up, yes-or-no vote regarding the right to abortion. Thus, no one really had any data to work with. There was some public opinion polling — much of which was unreliable — and some reasonable guesses were made on the basis of demographics and party affiliation. But no serious observer guessed that the amendment would lose by nearly 20 points.

Second, the 2016 election of Donald Trump, which similarly took a huge number of people by surprise. But in that case, the surprise wasn’t because of a lack of data, but because so many people (myself included) didn’t take seriously the information — the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton, the shifts in white voting patterns in upper Midwestern states, etc. — that pointed to the real chance that Trump could win. It seemed such a bizarre possibility that we discounted it.

So we come to the Kansas 2022 elections, where we’re not in the same situation as before the August amendment vote. In fact, thanks to that vote and other in-depth surveys, we know a fair amount, particularly about high levels of voter engagement among Democratic-leaning groups. We also know that Kelly’s approval numbers are pretty good and that abortion, along with Medicaid expansion and medical marijuana legalization, are motivating many voters.

Enough voters to overcome the huge, historical advantages Republicans enjoy in Kansas? Or all the other already-mentioned disadvantages weighing down Democrats this year? Probably not.

But in this election, even in the wake of the Republican redistricting of state and congressional legislative districts, I don’t want to discount the data we do have, however limited it may be. So I am willing to say that there really is a chance that not only will we see some top of the ballot Democrats winning in Kansas, but also enough Democrats holding on to or flipping Statehouse races — perhaps in Manhattan, Shawnee, Emporia, Hays, Hutchinson or Wichita — that the Republican super-majority could be lost, bizarre as that may sound.

Again, I’m not remotely confident about any of this. But after 2016 and 2022, I’m not so confident as to discount the possibility of the truly unlikely happening either.

— Russell Arben Fox teaches politics in Wichita.


Welcome to the new LJWorld.com. Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.