Yes, some local candidates running as Democrats were Republicans not long ago

photo by: Nick Krug

A collection of "I voted" stickers is pictured at the Douglas County Courthouse in this file photo from Nov. 3, 2016.

The local election season is hitting a key moment with Monday’s filing deadline near, and some readers have questions about some of the politics behind the races.

Two questions seem to be the most frequent: Why is there a dearth of local Republican candidates, and have some of the Democrats recently been Republicans?

It is easier to start with the second question: Yes, several have switched from Republican to Democrat a few months before becoming candidates. Of course, there is nothing that says a person can’t do that, but readers have been interested in that issue, particularly in the race for Douglas County sheriff.

The sheriff’s office in Douglas County has been held by a Republican for decades. I came to the community in 1992. The sheriff then, Loren Anderson, was a Republican, and so was the very long-time sheriff before him, Rex Johnson. My recollection is every sheriff since has been a Republican too.

Retiring Sheriff Ken McGovern is a Republican, and several of his staff members have filed for his seat. All three current candidates for the race are Democrats, but a search of party affiliation history on the Douglas County voter rolls shows that one candidate — it recently had been two — joined the party less than a year before filing for the seat. Both had been Republicans for many years prior.

Doug Woods, a captain in the sheriff’s office, switched his affiliation from Republican to Democrat in November 2019, according to information on voter rolls. Woods filed to run for sheriff as a Democrat in April of this year. Prior to his switch, Woods had been a Republican in Douglas County since 1993, according to voter rolls.

Gary Bunting, an undersheriff for the department, switched his affiliation from Republican to Democrat in January 2019, according to information on voter registration rolls at the Douglas County clerk’s office. About a year later, in January of this year, Bunting filed for the sheriff’s office as a Democrat. Prior to the switch, voter registration rolls show he had been registered as a Republican in Douglas County since 2000. But Bunting, actually while I was writing this article, dropped out of the race for health and family reasons.

The other two candidates in the race — Jay Armbrister, a lieutenant in the sheriff’s office, and Dale Flory, a member of the sheriff’s office’s underwater search and recovery team — had been registered Democrats for several years prior to their candidate filings. Armbrister switched from a Republican to a Democrat in 2008, according to voter rolls. He filed for sheriff as a Democrat in October 2018.

Flory switched from an unaffiliated registered voter to a Democrat in 2008. He filed for the sheriff’s office as a Democrat in January of this year.

The race for Douglas County district attorney also has one candidate who has made a recent switch in parties. Suzanne Valdez, a KU law school professor, switched from Republican to Democrat in January of this year, according to voter rolls. She filed for the district attorney seat as a Democrat in April. The rolls show that Valdez had been a Republican since 2014. From 2008 to 2014, she had been an unaffiliated registered voter. From 2000 to 2008, she was registered as a Republican, according to the records.

The two other candidates who have filed for district attorney both have been Democrats for several years, according to voter records. Cooper Overstreet, a defense attorney in a Lawrence firm, has been registered as a Democrat since 2016, having previously been an unaffiliated registered voter.

Charles Branson, the incumbent, has been a registered Democrat since 1990. (Note: A previous version of this article said Branson was an unaffiliated registered voter prior to 1998. The clerk’s office mistakenly read his record as unaffiliated prior to 1998.)

Again, I don’t want any of this information to sound accusatory. It is everybody’s right to change political parties at any time, and many people do change parties. But it also is reasonable information for voters to ask about. I did reach out to the three candidates I highlighted as having switched parties fairly recently to give them a chance to chime in on what led to their changes.

Woods said he actually wasn’t even planning to run for sheriff when he changed his party affiliation in November. But he knew there was going to be a Democratic primary for the seat, and as a 30-plus-year member of the department, he knew he wanted to vote in it. After changing parties, he said he had several people asking him whether he would run for the seat. By April he had decided that he would. He said he doesn’t think political party should be too big of a factor for voters in a sheriff’s race, and he wishes it were a nonpartisan race.

“I’ve always been one of those guys who vote for the best candidate,” Woods said. “Even when I was a Republican, I was never a hard-line, party-line voter.”

Valdez said changes in the philosophies of the two parties led to her decision. She said as a college student she followed the career of U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, the Kansan who was the GOP nominee for president in 1996. She said she had considered herself a Dole-style Republican, but has determined it is very hard to find that type of individual in the Republican Party anymore.

“(President Donald) Trump was the moral test for me, and he failed,” she said. “The Republican Party failed. I just couldn’t take it anymore, and that is why I changed.

“That’s not to say that there aren’t good Bob Dole-Republicans out there, but what I’m seeing in the political landscape right now is just too upsetting for me to be part of the party,” she said.

Unsolicited, Valdez brought up another topic that makes its way through local political conversations. Valdez’s husband is Stephen McAllister, who is the U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas. He was appointed by Trump. Valdez said she does get questions from some members of the public about how she can be a Democrat, given that association.

“It is a sexist question and a sexist comment,” Valdez said. “My husband has never been judged by the work I do, so why should I be judged by the work he does?”

To be fair, I did check in on the affiliation history of other candidates in contested, countywide races, such as treasurer and register of deeds. I won’t go into all of those, however, because their histories were pretty straightforward. None of those candidates had made recent switches of parties. I didn’t do research on the affiliation histories of local candidates who have filed for Statehouse seats. For one, contested Statehouse races are sparse in Douglas County, and the candidates in Lawrence-area races all have been party fixtures for quite some time.

Candidates have until noon on Monday to file for any of the races on the ballot.

•••

As it stands currently, no Republican has filed for a countywide race in Douglas County, and as of noon Friday, none had filed for a seat on the Douglas County Commission. Certainly, Douglas County has never been dominated by Republicans in the nearly 30 years I’ve been here, but the party has always had a stronger showing than this.

Michelle Derusseau, the lone Republican on the Douglas County Commission, might be a Republican who ends up on the ballot. But don’t take that to the bank. Her term is expiring, and with the deadline just days away, she hasn’t filed and won’t answer our questions about whether she intends to. Democrat Karen Willey already has filed for the seat.

As I was finishing this article early Friday afternoon, the Douglas County elections office announced that Brett LaRue, a Republican, had filed to run for the Douglas County Commission Second District seat. Incumbent Nancy Thellman, a Democrat, filed Thursday to run for reelection to that seat. We’ll have more on LaRue’s candidacy soon.

I got in touch with Douglas County Republican Party Chair Ronald Thacker, and he told me he wasn’t aware of any other potential GOP candidates for any Douglas County races. He said he had tried to recruit several candidates, but many of them were in the business community and said they didn’t want to try to add a political position to their lives.

He also offered a theory on why more Republicans aren’t running in Douglas County.

“A lot of what has changed is that people on the left in Lawrence have become so much more hateful,” Thacker said.

He said potential Republican candidates are ready and willing to defend their views, but he said they don’t want to be harassed over them.

“They don’t want to put up with that type of crap when they are already doing something productive,” he said.

Surely, though, part of the reason fewer Republican candidates are running is because it is really difficult to win with an R behind your name in the county. Voter demographics almost assure that. The latest numbers from the Douglas County clerk’s office show there are about 32,500 registered Democrats in the county versus 20,500 Republicans. There are about 24,300 unaffiliated registered voters.

I don’t have historical numbers handy, but I’m pretty sure the split between Democrats and Republicans has grown significantly over the years.

A more meaningful way to look at it is probably through election results. In 2016, Trump won only 28% of the vote in Douglas County. In 2018, the top GOP candidate on the ballot — Kris Kobach, who was running for governor — won only 20% of the vote. Steve Watkins, running for the U.S. House seat, won only 24% of the vote, although he was running against Lawrence native Paul Davis.

To go back to that original question we started with: Why is there a dearth of Republican candidates in Douglas County?

I probably could have saved a lot of words and provided a one-word answer: math.

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