Thursday, June 21, 2007

The right has lost Kansas & the loonies are disappearing! Not yet, but soon?

By Diane Silver

Imagine my surprise when I woke up to this pronouncement on Alternet about Kansas, my current place of abode:
"The progressive backlash in my old home state is complete. The right wing not only has lost control of Kansas, they've been virtually thrown out of the state..."

Oh gosh, I wish this were true. I really, really, really do, but this declaration by former Kansan Martha Burk is a tad premature.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that Burk's vision may well come true. It may even happen within the next few years. It just hasn't happened yet.

To claim that it has is to naively misrepresent the situation. Ignoring reality is a lousy way to win elections.

First as a newspaper reporter and now as a political activist and blogger, I've been watching politics in the Sunflower State for more than 20 years. Here's how I read the tea leaves.

In the Alternet piece -- which first appeared in Ms. -- Burk takes note of all the Kansas political news that's been zipping around the media since November.

Yup, our governor is Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, and she is really popular. Her lieutenant governor running mate is the former chairman of the state GOP, and he did switch parties to run with her. Right winger Phill Kline got soundly booted out as Attorney General and another moderate former Republican, Paul Morrison, won easily. Democrat Nancy Boyda scored an upset victory over longtime Congressional incumbent Jim Ryun. A couple of moderate Republicans switched parties in the Legislature and won seats.

Perhaps most important, Operation Rescue's "Wichita '07 -- A Cry For Justice" event was an utter bust. Instead of the thousands who were supposed to march on the Wichita clinic of Dr. George Tiller, only a handful of people came.

But Burk left a lot out of her story, and the missing facts are telling.

The biggest sign that the religious right still has a firm hold in Kansas is the makeup of the Legislature. The Kansas House is still ultra-conservative. In January, House members elected social conservative Melvin Neufeld as speaker.

In the state Senate, a woeful 10, yes I said "ten," of the 40 senators are Democrats. In the House, only 47 of 125 representatives are Democrats. Not all of the Democrats are progressive, or even moderate.

Liberal legislation barely gets a hearing in the Statehouse, while almost anything that limits state services or helps the religious right goes to the front of the line.

It's true that the darling of the religious right, former AG Kline, was soundly defeated in November, but a month later he landed on his feet. The Republican Committee of Johnson County -- the state's most prosperous county -- elected Kline to fill the last two years of the recently vacated district attorney's office.

This resurrected Kline's political career, which up to that moment seemed dead on arrival. Given that Kline may well have national ambitions, it's important to watch what he does.

Kansas' future is important because it has often served as an early warning system for the rest of the nation.

How will we know if the religious right is finally on its way out in this reddest of red states? Look for these signs.

1. Watch the primary battle between ultra-conservative Jim Ryun and moderate Lynn Jenkins. The two are fighting for the Republican nod to run against Boyda.

The primary is 14 months away and the 2008 general election still 17 months off, but Ryun and Jenkins are already going after each other with a vengeance. The most recent ignition point is a Club For Growth ad attacking Jenkins. The tussle has already made the local newspaper and the left-wing blogosphere.

What to Watch
If Ryun wins in 2008, then forget about claiming that the religious right has lost power in Kansas. If Jenkins or Boyda win in '08, then there very well may be hope.

2. Keep an eye on the struggle over the Johnson County District Attorney's office.

Kline already has one Republican and one Democratic challenger. To make matters more interesting, the county Republican Party may already be taking sides -- against Kline.

What to Watch
If Kline runs and wins all the fury his insider election created, then moderates and liberals will have proven themselves to be toothless against the right.

3. Scope out the religious right's effort to retake the state Board of Education in '08.

Moderates won control of the state board in November, but enough seats are up for grabs in the next election that the majority could flip once again.

What to Watch
If all the furor over the right's anti-evolution stand doesn't elect a moderate majority, then the religious right may have years of renewed health.

4. Keep sight of the legislative districts and the leadership races.

This is the down and dirty local level of politics in Kansas. The candidates go neighbor to neighbor, particularly in House districts.

What to Watch
If moderates and liberals can't take control of legislative districts, particularly in the House, then the age of a more moderate Kansas may be another decade or so in coming. The winners need not be Democrats to bring a bit of sanity to the Statehouse. However, they do have to turn away from what folks out here politely call the "social conservative" wing of the GOP. If that happens, and a moderate House Speaker is elected, then folks, we really will have a new ballgame.

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