Despite hopes for 2018, Kansas Democrats still face long-term challenges

photo by: Nick Krug

Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, February 2014.

TOPEKA — Former Kansas governor and Obama-era cabinet secretary Kathleen Sebelius offered an interesting observation when she spoke to a Lawrence audience last week.

Responding to a question about whether she would ever run for public office again, she gave an emphatic “no,” and then offered this advice for both political parties.

“We should never, in my humble opinion, we should never have a 70-year-old again as president of the United States,” she said. “Ever, ever, ever, from either party.”

That was obviously a back-handed reference to the current president, 72-year-old Donald Trump. And it may also have been a piece of unsolicited advice to former Vice President Joe Biden, age 75, who recently has been looking more and more like a potential candidate in 2020.

Sebelius noted that half of the world’s population today is under age 25. So by the time a person reaches age 70, she said, it’s probably time for them to take a bow, make a graceful exit off the stage and make way for the next generation of leaders.

But her comment also served as a reminder about one of the long-term challenges facing the Kansas Democratic Party today – the lack of a deep bench of young, ambitious officeholders who might be in line to move up in the ranks in 2020 and beyond.

Democrats haven’t won a single statewide or congressional race in Kansas since 2006, when Sebelius won the governor’s race, Nancy Boyda won her one and only term in Congress from the 2nd District, and former Republican-turned-Democrat Paul Morrison won the office of attorney general.

Since then, Kansas Republicans have made a clean sweep in each of the last five general election cycles.

Kansas Democrats do have high hopes for 2018, including a few young — or at least young-ish — contenders for top-tier offices. Those include 38-year-old Sharice Davids, who is looking competitive in the 3rd District congressional race. They also have 48-year-old Paul Davis in the 2nd District, and 54-year-old Brian McClendon in the race for Kansas secretary of state.

Democrats would have to get awfully lucky for all three of those candidates to win. But if any of them do, they could probably look forward to substantial careers in higher office.

Beyond those three, however, the other two major Democratic candidates on the ballot this year are Sen. Laura Kelly for governor and Sen. Marci Francisco for state treasurer. Both are age 68.

Looking further down the road, however, one has to wonder where the potential candidates are for 2020, when a U.S. Senate seat will be up for election, and incumbent Republican Pat Roberts, who will be 84 by that time, either will or won’t run for another term.

Kansas Republicans, on the other hand, never seem to have a shortage of young, or young-ish, talent ready to move up. Two who made respectable showings in the crowded 2nd District primary this year were state Sen. Caryn Tyson, 55, and Rep. Kevin Jones, 43.

State Treasurer Jacob LaTurner, 30, also comes up in a lot of conversations about the future of the Kansas GOP.

Right now, it doesn’t appear these Republicans have reached the end of their political careers. And they probably haven’t reached the end of their ambitions, either.

One reason Republicans have such a deep bench is the success they’ve had in state legislative races in recent years. They’ve also been pretty successful in local races for county commissions, school boards and city councils. That’s really where the grooming of future candidates for higher office really begins.

Democrats do have a number of those running for the Kansas House this year. Among them are Lawrence Rep. Eileen Horn, 38, who is running for her first full term without any opposition; Thea Perry, 37, running in the 42nd District against incumbent Rep. Jim Karleskint; and Brandon Woodard, 28, running in the open 30th District in Johnson County.

The challenge for Democrats, though, will be to win, and then hold those seats, if they hope to be competitive as a party in 2020 and beyond.


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