Friday, August 04, 2006

The Kansas Evolution Election: What it means for the future of the religious right

By Diane Silver

Tuesday's vote in Kansas was momentous, or was it? Voters in the nation's most iconic red state declared their support for Darwin and science, or did they? The religious right suffered a major blow, or did it? From my perspective out here in Kansas, I don't believe the answers to those questions are as obvious as folks might think.

This very long post will recap what happened in the primary, show how conventional wisdom took a hit, talk about the realities of red state politics and discuss what this means for Kansas and the future of the religious right.

A Primary Recap

(Feel free to skip this if you're already up-to-date on Tuesday's results, although the information on turnout might be new to you.)

Tuesday moderates won on both the Kansas Board of Education and in two closely watched statewide races.

In the races for the state Board of Education, the balance of power once again shifted from the religious right to the pro-science forces.

Moderate incumbent Democrat Janet Waugh held onto her seat in Kansas City. Republican Jana Shaver of Independence ousted the Republican, anti-evolution standard bearer to take an open seat away from the religious right. Republican Sally Cauble of Liberal pulled off a shocker by defeating incumbent Connie Morris, once the darling of the religious right. Morris is known for, among other things, declaring that evolution is nothing more than a fairy tale.

Meanwhile, the religious right scored victories by nominating John Bacon of Olathe and Ken Willard of Hutchinson to run as Republicans in November and possibly keep their current seats on the board.

No matter what happens in the November general election, pro-evolution forces have already taken over the board. This is because Waugh has no general election opposition and the Democrats running against Shaver and Cauble all support evolution.

Meanwhile, incumbent Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger beat the religious right's candidate, Rep. Eric Carter of Overland Park, by winning 60 percent of the vote in the Republican primary. Incumbent Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh beat ultra-conservative state Sen. Kay O'Connor of Olathe with 73 percent of the vote.

Turnout in the primary was a record low 18 percent of the state's registered voters. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that only about 296,000 people statewide voted, out of 1.6 million registered. The Secretary of State's office says the previous record low for a turnout was 26 percent in 2002.

Conventional Wisdom Takes a Hit

The conventional wisdom so beloved of pundits often includes three parts.

1. Low turnout favors the religious right because they are more organized and passionate about their issues than other voters.

2. As described in Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas, the state's Republican Party is torn between the rabidly anti-evolution, anti-gay religious right and the socially progressive, fiscally conservative moderates.

3. Tuesday's vote was a referendum on evolution itself and the election's results show that intelligence design is such a weak idea with so few supporters that it can't even win in Kansas.

All of this so-called wisdom took a hit on Tuesday.

Low turnout didn't seem to favor the religious right in either the state board races or the statewide races. Cherokee County, for example, had the lowest turnout in the state with only 9 percent of the voters participating. Cherokee is part of District 9 where Jana Shaver beat an anti-evolution candidate.

This could mean that the rank and file of the religious right really doesn't care that much about evolution, or it could mean that the pro-science forces were more energized by their recent defeats.

Some liberals and moderates angered by the anti-science, anti-public education state board were furiously organizing. A new organization created by a farmer called The Kansas Alliance for Education spent more than $100,000 to fight for pro-science candidates. The MAINstream Coalition and its MAIN*PAC in Johnson County also worked hard for the pro-science forces.

However, Washburn University Political Scientist Bob Beatty told The Wichita Eagle that neither a letdown by the religious right nor the energy of liberalism or moderation may have been a factor. The true issue may have been that the incumbents weren't perceived as doing their jobs. Call it the making-the-trains-run-on-time factor. The Eagle reports:

Conservative state school board members might not have been vulnerable because they're anti-evolution but because of the amount of time, effort and energy they put into that subject, he said.

(Secretary of State Ron) Thornburgh and (Insurance Commissioner Sandy) Prager may have benefited from being seen as competent stewards of their offices, Beatty said.

"Thornburgh is right where a large majority of Kansans want him to be, doing his job and not picking fights on issues that don't have much to do with his job," Beatty said.

Beatty is also quoted as saying that the moderate-conservative split in the Republican Party "might have been a little overblown."

I disagree with Beatty. I think the split is deep. To say that the two sides hate each other with a blood passion is an understatement given what I've personally witnesses. However, I wonder if the split is more passionate for politicos and reporters than for the average voter.

The one thing the low turnout does say is that the vast majority of Kansans just didn't give a hoot one way or the other about the primary. To them, it wasn't the "Evolution Election" as I've been touting it on this blog. It was merely a big waste of time. This attitude apparently extends to the religious right as well as liberal and moderate voters.

Of course, there were other factors that could have driven down turnout. The race to pick what may well be a Republican sacrificial lamb to face Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in the fall was a real snoozer.

It was also HORRIBLY HOT on Tuesday. The temperature was at the official Blast Furnace level and just stepping outside was a trial. This is particularly true for older voters who may be counted to support the old-fashioned values of the religious right. However, it has always been hot in Kansas during its primaries.

The Salina Journal, a pro-science newspaper, counts other reasons for the losses of state board incumbent Connie Morris and anti-evolution candidate Brad Patzer. The Journal wrote:

For her part, Morris showed a lack of respect for state taxpayers when she spent lavishly on a state-paid trip to a magnet school conference in Florida. She stayed in a luxury hotel suite and turned in questionable receipts for payment. Later Morris reimbursed the state $2,900 for the trip, but only after details of her travels became public.

Voters in southeast Kansas apparently associate Patzer with retiring board member (Iris) Van Meter, his mother in law, who contributes little to the board other than votes. She steadfastly follows the conservative block instead of representing her constituents. Voters must have assumed -- rightly so -- that Patzer would follow that pattern.

What's It All Mean?

In one sense, it's impossible to tell right now what this will mean, but here are a few of first impressions.

Red-state voters -- even the religious right -- may well care about making things work as much as anyone else does. The secretary of state should make the elections work right and fulfill his or her duties to regulate corporations. The insurance commissioner should make certain insurance companies play fair. The state Board of Education should help schools educate our kids. Perhaps even red-state voters don't want religion to be inserted into any of those positions.

It is clear that low turnout doesn't always favor the religious right. Moderates and liberals can be energized and get their own folks to the polls, even in a place like Kansas.

Intelligent Design and its backers really did take a hit on Tuesday, despite the strength of the religious right in Kansas and the fact that one out-of-state group ran radio ads promoting the anti-evolution viewpoint. How much of a hit probably won't be determined for a few years.

First, we need to see how the two anti-evolution incumbents who survived do in the November general election. Their Republican primary opponents have already endorsed the pro-science Democrats running in November.

The true test for evolution, however, will probably come in 2008 when the seats of three moderate members of the board are up for election. Will liberals and moderates fall asleep again and allow the religious right to swing the board to the right? Will the religious right care enough to come out and vote? If pro-science candidates can hang onto the board through two elections, then Kansas and perhaps the nation will have made real progress against the anti-evolution forces.

    Meanwhile, those of you interested in the political strength of the religious right should direct your attention to the race for attorney general in Kansas. Democrat Paul Morrison is running against Republican Phill Kline, much beloved by the religious right. If Morrison -- a Republican turned Democrat -- can win in scarlet Kansas, that may well signal new weakness in the power of the far right.

    And that, my friend, would be a very good thing indeed.

    No comments: