Opinion: Red Kansas still has a middle road

No one expects Joe Biden to win Kansas in 2024. After all, 1964 was the last time a Democrat won the state. And before that, Kansans voted for Republicans in six straight presidential contests, including strong opposition to popular incumbent Franklin D. Roosvelt in 1940 and 1944.

Kansas is red, and everyone knows it.

However, the political monopoly is not complete. There is a center. And recent advances by Democrats illustrate its vitality.

For example, in 2020, Joe Biden’s Kansas vote share, 42%, was the best by a Democrat in over 30 years. Only Michael Dukakis in 1988, 42.5%, and Jimmy Carter in 1976, 44.9%, secured higher percentages.

Moreover, Biden flipped Republican counties Johnson, Shawnee and Riley, where about a third of Kansans live. In Johnson County, Kansas’ wealthiest, Biden crushed historical margins, capturing the highest ever vote share for a Democrat at 52.7%. Johnson County’s Statehouse delegation is now mostly Democratic as well.

Though Biden lost Sedgwick County, which is the state’s second largest, his 43% result was a noteworthy improvement from Clinton’s 36.3% in 2016 and Obama’s 39.4% in 2012.

Biden’s gains were in part due to centrist appeals that attracted moderates and independents, as well as significant support from wealthy Kansans.

The governor’s office also demonstrates centrism.

Starting with Robert Docking in the late 1960s, five of the past 10 governors have been Democrats, and three of them won a second term. In 2022, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly secured nearly 60% of the vote in Johnson, Shawnee and Riley counties and won a majority in Sedgwick County.

Nevertheless, a certain kind of Democrat is required. A successful Democrat runs a disciplined and balanced campaign, sticking to bread-and-butter issues while avoiding divisive culture war battles.

Finally, rejection of the proposed state constitutional abortion amendment shows the effectiveness of a centrist approach. The abortion vote was not about Democrats and Republicans. Rather, abortion rights advocates separated women’s rights from conventional partisan trappings. They recast abortion as a fundamental liberty, a right of Kansans to make decisions for themselves without government intrusion. This small-government, personal freedom perspective expanded the pool of supporters drawing moderate Republicans and Independents.

The fall 2022 Kansas Speaks opinion survey makes this clear. More than half, 57.5%, of Kansans agreed that Kansas government should not place any regulations on the circumstances under which women can get abortions. Nearly 40% of Republicans and 56% of Independents agreed.

Likewise, 70% of Kansans agreed that women are in a better position than politicians to make their own choice about abortion. A majority of Republicans agreed, as did 69% of Independents.

To be clear, Kansas is a conservative state where registered Republicans, 45%, far outnumber Democrats, 26%. Recent Democratic inroads do not of course portend a thundering majority favoring Joe Biden. But it would be a mistake to ignore the successes of centrist candidates.

A few years ago, while browsing through the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, I discovered a fascinating exhibit called Eisenhower’s Middle Road. Displayed prominently were Ike’s thoughts on centrism:

“The middle of the road is all the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.”

So, for a moment, let’s avert our eyes from the red-blue spectacle. Now we can grasp what Kansas’ most popular and successful public figure realized. There is a middle way. And working from the middle, things can be accomplished that the extremes believe impossible.

— Mark Joslyn is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.


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