GovernorMark Parkinson (D)
SenatorsSam Brownback (R)
Pat Roberts (R)
- 1 D, 3 R
With its relentlessly horizontal landscape, Kansas seems to invite the sort of weather systems that uprooted Dorothy’s life in the children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In 2007, a 205-mile-per-hour tornado—rated EF-5, the most dangerous category—destroyed the town of Greensburg, killing 10 people and prompting Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to complain that desperately needed National Guard equipment was tied up in Iraq. In this tragedy, there is an echo of Kansas’s chief claim to literary fame; in the film, based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, the Kansas from which Dorothy and Toto are swept by a tornado is shown in dreary black-and-white, in contrast to the brilliant Technicolor of Oz. Thomas Frank, author of the best-selling What’s the Matter With Kansas?, seemed to get it right when he said, “Kansas may be the land of averageness, but it is a freaky, militant, outraged averageness.” For the history of seemingly placid Kansas—it actually is flatter than a pancake, geographers announced in 2004 after comparing its topography to an IHOP product—has been punctuated by uprisings, intellectual and violent, by moments of anger and rage sweeping through the tall sheaves like a tornado wind. The history of Kansas began in a moment of violence, the Bleeding Kansas of the 1850s that led proximately to the terrible war that split the whole nation. The trigger was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which left to local settlers the question of whether this new Kansas Territory would be a free or slave state. Pro-slavery “bushwhackers” rode over the line from Missouri, stealing elections and writing a pro-slavery constitution. But much larger numbers of free-soil “jayhawkers,” from New England and the New England-Yankee-settled Great Lakes states, put down roots and, despite the massacres of the mad John Brown, prevailed and established their own law and order. This was a civil war before the Civil War, and, as Wichita State historian Charles Miner points out, one conducted by literate people who produced mountains of documents that have not been fully mined by historians.
Kansas’s effect on national politics was tumultuous. The Democratic Party was split on the slavery issue, the Republican Party was created, and the nation was plunged into Civil War. The ultimate effect on Kansas was calming: The antislavery majority bent the soil to the plow and built small towns with sturdy networks of schools, churches, and colleges. But the rebellious impulse did not totally die out. Kansans’ livelihoods were always at risk: Hailstorms, grasshopper invasions, dry seasons or a drop in world farm prices could mean disaster for thousands of families. The high-rainfall 1880s attracted hundreds of thousands of new settlers to Kansas. The low-rainfall 1890s produced a bust and a populist rebellion. “What you farmers should do,” said orator Mary Ellen Lease, “is to raise less corn and more hell.” For a few years in the 1890s, and then in the farm rebellions of the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s, Kansans did, but afterwards, the state always returned to jayhawker Republicanism.
Kansas remains mostly Republican in the 21st century, but not in quite the same old way. Its most famous contemporary politician, former GOP Sen. Bob Dole, still returns occasionally to his small hometown of Russell, out on the plains. But Kansas’ population is increasingly metropolitan. Some 52% of Kansans live in just five counties, which include Kansas City, Lawrence, Topeka, and Wichita. In 85 of the 100 other counties, the population declined between 2000 and 2007. . A majority of Kansans live in or within easy reach of metropolitan Kansas City, which has a diverse economy that is by no means dependent on farming.
At the same time, some small towns on the plains are suffering, their city halls and post offices sometimes padlocked and their high schools closed because of low attendance. Some towns have bought land to be distributed free to homesteaders. The state promotes agritourism at buffalo ranches and the wild Tallgrass Prairie. But new office complexes and corporate headquarters are rising amidst the affluent suburbs of Johnson County, which has one of the highest job growth rates in the country. The smaller metropolitan area of Wichita, while less diversified, has an economy built on its role as the world’s leading producer of small airplanes. Many World War II planes were built in Wichita, and today Cessna, Bombardier, Raytheon and other manufacturers make more than half the general-aviation aircraft in the world. Hispanics are flocking to work in meatpacking factories in towns like Dodge City, Garden City, and Liberal. With populations in 2000 that were more than 40% Hispanic, the towns experienced pro-immigration marches when Congress began debating major changes in immigration policy in 2005. Hispanics accounted for nearly half of Kansas’s population growth in the 1990s and made up 9% of its population in 2005.
These demographic shifts have had political consequences. Some 40% of Kansas’s votes in 2004 were cast in the mostly suburban counties from Kansas City west to Topeka and another 15% in Wichita’s Sedgwick County. If rural Kansas once produced farm rebellions, these urban and suburban Kansans have produced their own kind of rebellion. Since the mid-1990s, Kansas has had in effect three-party politics—conservative Republicans versus moderate Republicans versus Democrats—and fought a kind of culture war over issues like abortion rights and the teaching of evolution in the schools. In 1994, the state elected as governor Republican Bill Graves, who was pro-abortion rights and pro-gun control. He was fiercely opposed by conservative Republicans in the Legislature and in his 1998 re-election primary. He won easily, but traditionalists won a majority on the state Board of Education and in 1999 issued guidelines that treated evolution as a theory. There was a national uproar, and ever since, elections to this once obscure board have featured fierce fights, mostly in Republican primaries. The guidelines on evolution and science curricula have been revised four more times. In February 2007, the board repealed the guidelines questioning evolution on a 6-4 vote. In another snub of cultural conservatives, the Legislature voted in March 2007 to allow the Kansas Lottery to operate gambling casinos. Another hot issue is Sebelius’s veto of plans to build coal-fired power plants in southwestern Kansas, out of concern for climate change. The Legislature didn’t have the votes to override her veto.
The Republican split has created opportunities for the Democrats. The party captured the 3rd Congressional District seat in 1998 by beating a conservative who’d alienated suburban moderates, and it won the governorship in 2002 when Democrat Sebelius beat conservative Treasurer Tim Shallenburger. The battle raged on. Sebelius vetoed a bill for stricter regulation of abortion clinics, the Legislature considered a move to ban state-funded embryonic-stem-cell research and Republican Attorney General Phillip Kline sought abortion-clinic records from Dr. George Tiller, who performed late-term abortions. Tiller was shot and killed by an anti-abortion extremist in 2009. In 2006, Sebelius recruited former Republican state Chairman Mark Parkinson to be her running mate and won 58%-40%. Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison switched to the Democratic Party, ran against Kline and beat him 59%-41%. Also that year, conservatives lost their majority on the State Board of Education in the August GOP primaries. In January 2008, Morrison resigned after it was revealed that he had had a sexual affair with a subordinate. Kline, appointed Johnson County District Attorney, sought an indictment against Dr. Tiller for performing late-term abortions without a sign-off from a second doctor with no common financial interests. A grand jury declined to bring an indictment; Kline ran in the August 2008 primary for a full term as district attorney and was beaten.
Frank’s book argued that Kansas voters have been hornswoggled into voting against their economic interests by big business operatives. That’s not an entirely accurate picture. His hometown, which he cites as evidence of economic decline, is in booming Johnson County, and Kansas’s unemployment rate has been well below the national average. And lots of other voters—liberals on the Upper East Side of New York, for example—vote against their short-term economic interests, because cultural issues are more important to them. The recent switches toward moderate Republicans and Democrats came not in the drought-stricken farm counties in southern and western Kansas, which are sustained by subsidized crop insurance and federal disaster payments, but in the economically vital metropolitan areas of Kansas, where the key swing voters were motivated, as Kansas’s conservative Republican voters have been, by cultural issues.
In federal elections, Democrats had two of Kansas’s four U.S. House seats in 2006, but lost one of them to a Republican in 2008. The state has remained Republican in presidential elections, and its two Republican senators were both first elected in 1996, when Dole resigned to run for president and moderate Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum retired. Kansas has not elected a Democratic senator since 1932—the only state that hasn’t—and Republican incumbent Pat Roberts won re-election easily in the Democratic year of 2008. That could have changed in 2010, as the popular Sebelius, term-limited as governor, was widely expected to run for the seat being vacated by Republican Sam Brownback, who is running for governor. But in March 2009, Obama tapped Sebelius as his Secretary of Health and Human Services, likely dissuading her from a gubernatorial bid in 2010.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Republican Presidential Caucus
Except for 1964, when it narrowly favored Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater, Kansas has voted Republican for president throughout the past 60 years. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush carried 103 of its 105 counties, losing only those containing the old industrial city of Kansas City and the university town of Lawrence. Some polls showed the 2008 race could be closer, especially if Gov. Kathleen Sebelius were the Democratic vice presidential nominee. John McCain won by a solid but not overwhelming 57%-42% margin, carrying 102 of 105 counties. He lost the two that had gone for John Kerry, plus Crawford County in the southeast. In 1996, the state Legislature voted to cancel the April primary, and none has been held since.
|111th Congress: 1 D, 3 R|
In 2002, Republicans had full control of redistricting in Kansas for the first time since the 1960s, but did not use it to partisan advantage. Why? As one legislator put it, “What’s ground zero with reapportionment? I’d say it’s Lawrence.” In the previous plan, Lawrence, midway between Kansas City and Topeka and home of the University of Kansas, was in the 3rd District captured by Democrat Dennis Moore in 1998 and held in 2000. The 3rd District had to shed 61,000 people, and the obvious partisan move was to remove Lawrence, which Moore carried by wide margins, and place it in the heavily Republican 2nd District, where incumbent Republican Jim Ryun was thought to be unbeatable. But Lawrence civic leaders insisted that Lawrence be kept together in the 3rd District—they wanted the university to be in the same district as its hospital in Kansas City—and Republicans in the state House in March 2002 passed a plan splitting the city but keeping most of it, including the university, in the 3rd. The state Senate in April 2002 passed a different plan, promoted by national Republicans, which extended the western 1st District all the way to the southeast corner of the state. But the House’s plan prevailed and was adopted in June. As it turned out, in 2006 Democrat Nancy Boyda won the portion of Douglas County included in the 2nd District, 61%-38%. Overall, she won by a much smaller margin in her 51%-47% upset win over Republican Jim Ryun. But in 2008, Douglas County was not enough to save Boyda, who lost 51%-46% to Republican state Treasurer Lynn Jenkins.