What's Up With Kansas? How the Right Wing Lost Control of the Cyclone State

This article originally appeared in Ms. Magazine.

Election 2006 was properly reported as a Democratic landslide that changed control of the U.S. senate and the House of Representatives. But most reporters and pundits missed a story on one of the most profound turnarounds delivered by voters in over a decade: in Kansas, a place that has been called "The Reddest of Red States", there was nothing short of a progressive revolution. And that's good news for women and the issues they care about. To start with, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote -- against an anti-abortion Republican bent on abolishing the estate tax -- although less than a third of Kansas voters are registered Democrats. Sebelius' lieutenant governor, Mark Parkinson, even switched parties to run on her pro-choice platform, despite being the former head of the state Republican Party.

Two other Kansas Republicans who switched parties were elected to the state House, cutting into the dominance of Republicans in the state legislature. And pro-choice Kansans were relieved to see Phill Kline, an out-of-control anti-abortion zealot, turned out of the attorney general's office with a 58 percent vote for his opponent, Paul Morrison -- an abortion-rights supporter and yet another former Republican.

Moderates both Democratic and Republican ended conservative control of the Kansas Board of Education, banishing two members who had crusaded to replace evolution with creationism in the public schools -- and the new board reversed their decision soon after taking office. Finally, in a U.S. House race, pro-choice underdog Nancy Boyda ran on a progressive economic platform to defeat five-term incumbent Republican Jim Ryun.

So what's up with Kansas? It just so happens I know a little something about the place. Shortly after I came from Texas to Wichita in early 1986 to take a job, an abortion clinic owned by Dr. George Tiller was bombed. Feminists came together to "fight the right" and, through the local NOW chapter, we created an escort service for women entering Tiller's Women's Health Care Services -- one of the few places in the country where women can obtain late-term abortions.

Despite the bombing, Kansas was not yet the conservative bastion it became in the 1990s. Traditional moderate Republicans controlled the state legislature, Wichita's member of the House, Dan Glickman, was a pro-choice Democrat, and Republican pro-choice moderate Nancy Kassebaum was in the Senate. There was a Democratic governor in the statehouse as well.

But the bombing was one of several signs that things were changing. By 1988, as president of Wichita NOW and leader of the opposition to growing threats to women, I was concerned enough about anti-choice zealotry to watch my back every time I went out. The right wing of the Republican Party started to take over at the precinct level all over the state, and conservatives began running for school boards and pushing for "intelligent design" curriculum in science classrooms.

In 1991, a year after I left Kansas, the right wing of the state's Republican party had gained a lot of momentum. Operation Rescue targeted Tiller's Women's Health Care Services for its "Summer of Mercy," in which thousands of anti-abortion troops came to Wichita to lie in the streets and illegally block the clinics, filling the jails. Their actions culminated in an anti-abortion rally that drew 25,000 to Wichita State University's stadium.

Over the next decade, the conservative juggernaut rolled on. Mirroring races all over the country in the 1994 "Republican Revolution," Glickman was defeated by right-wing standard-bearer Todd Tiahrt, and a little-known politician named Sam Brownback was elected to his first term in the House. In 2002, Phill Kline, a Kansas City radio host and Rush Limbaugh clone, was elected attorney general, and immediately tried to force Kansas health workers to report sexual activity of girls younger than 16 (the Kansas age of consent). That action was blocked by a federal judge, but by 2004 Kline had convinced a county district judge to issue subpoenas for records of 90 women from two abortion clinics -- names, sexual history, medical details -- describing it as a search for evidence of illegal late-term abortions and child rape.

By the time Thomas Frank's bestseller What's the Matter With Kansas? was published in June 2004, Kansas had become the embodiment of the Republican "red-state" takeover described in the book. Frank identified what he concluded was a lasting backlash against the Democratic Party on social issues, asserting that working-class and poor people would now vote Republican in order to fight the cultural left -- even though they might be voting against their own economic interests. He credited Operation Rescue's Summer of Mercy with transforming a moderately conservative working-class state into a hard-core bedrock of anti-abortion and right-wing politics, turning its back on its populist roots.

Pundits proclaimed Frank prescient, and warned that the whole country was moving to the right, with opposition to abortion being one of the main reasons. If Democrats wanted to win in the future, they'd better heed the lesson that they had lost the battle on so-called values issues and confront the culture war with a populist economic appeal. As Kansas goes, Frank concluded, so goes the nation.

This message was not lost on Democratic Party leaders and the high-priced consultants they hire. Still smarting a decade after losing both the House and the Senate in 1994 and the White House six years later, the Democrats were tired of the political wilderness. Some figured heeding Frank's advice would be their saving grace.

So in 2004 they pursued campaign strategies that ignored many of the issues at the center of the culture war. They took the Equal Rights Amendment out of the party platform for the first time in 62 years. Voters who didn't already know that presidential candidate John Kerry was pro-choice could not discern it from listening to him on the stump.

The result was a squandering of the gender gap. John Kerry was defeated by George W. Bush, and both houses of Congress remained Republican. Kansas went for Bush by a margin of nearly 2-1. Enter Charles Schumer and Rahm Emanuel. In January 2005, the combative senator from New York became chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Emanuel -- a two-term representative from Illinois -- took over its counterpart committee in the House. As a condition of taking the job, Schumer made a deal that the party would back candidates in the primaries, departing from long-standing practice, and that he would have a big say in which candidates got the nod. By February, Schumer was courting anti-choice candidates, and some members of the leadership were saying that Senate Democrats had no "litmus test" on abortion rights.

As a consequence, pro-choicer Barbara Hafer, a former state treasurer, was pushed out of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary in favor of Bob Casey, an anti-abortion "new Democrat." Schumer also courted anti-choice Rep. Jim Langevin for the Senate race in Rhode Island over pro-choice Secretary of State Matt Brown, but Langevin withdrew after national women's groups became outraged. On the House side, Emanuel was using the same playbook, his prize catch being Heath Shuler from North Carolina -- a former football star and evangelical Christian opposed to abortion. Emanuel believed the party needed machismo, and according to one report "looked for candidates with strong backgrounds, from sheriffs to sol-diers, to counteract a Democratic image of softness." After the 2006 elections, Schumer and Emanuel were hailed as architects of the victory. Some of their hand-picked candidates had won, including anti-choice poster boys Casey and Shuler. USA Today declared the centrist New Democrat and conservative Blue Dog Democratic caucuses to be the big gainers in the new Congress.

But wait a minute. What really happened in 2006?

There is no question that Schumer and Emanuel's fund-raising and political skills contributed to the Democratic landslide -- but that landslide was not due to their strategy of abandoning traditional Democratic values and backing more conservative candidates. In fact, a number of their more conservative picks lost, and some candidates whom they didn't help -- such as feminist, anti-war Democrat Carol Shea-Porter in New Hampshire -- won in spite of them. Casey and Shuler notwithstanding, the biggest winners in the election were actually progressive candidates and causes. And Kansas -- in a direct repudiation of Thomas Frank's theory that Democrats couldn't win on cultural issues like abortion -- led the way.

While the Iraq War was, without question, the top voter concern in the national elections, it certainly cannot explain the rout the right wing suffered in Kansas, nor can the anti-war vote or the Schumer/Emanuel strategy of painting the party more conservative fully illuminate what happened.

For openers, seven of eight new Democratic senators and one Independent are pro-choice (Casey is the exception). Four more pro-choice governors were elected. The draconian abortion ban in South Dakota was soundly defeated. Voters also turned down ballot initiatives mandating parental notification for abortions in California and Oregon. A stem-cell initiative passed in Missouri, and candidates who ran on support for stem-cell research were overwhelmingly successful. And minimum-wage hikes passed on six of six state ballots. Pundits were also wrong about the Blue Dog Caucus in the House becoming pre-eminent: Actually, the Progressive Caucus gained many new members, and is the largest caucus in Congress.

Election 2006 thus gives lie to the notion that the country is permanently more conservative. What happened, rather, was that the right wing of the Republican Party went too far. Like newscaster Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network, voters rose up and yelled, "We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take this anymore!" And the majority of those voters were women. The gender gap was decisive in 2006, with women's votes making the difference in every seat that turned over in the Senate and many of those in the House. If men alone had voted, the Congress would still be under Republican control.

Although Frank's general thesis was proven wrong, he was correct about one point, which Gov. Sebelius' 85-year-old father, himself a former governor, made on election night: "What's happening today in Kansas is a bellwether for what's going to happen in the future for the Democratic Party." And he's right. The results nationwide show that progressive issues such as abortion rights, economic justice, stem cell research and a more humane so-ciety are winning issues -- especially among women. Those issues are popular not only with the Democrats' base of supporters, but are also the key to siphoning moderates from the Republican Party and attracting a majority of independents.

I haven't been back to Kansas lately, but I was tempted to go in January when Operation Rescue announced it would bring supporters from around the nation to "Wichita '07 -- A Cry For Justice." I wish I had gone to see the fireworks fail to materialize. Of the "thousands" of anti-abortion protesters conservative talk-show host Bill O'Reilly had urged to join the demonstrations, only a few dozen showed up. They were greatly outnumbered by abortion-rights supporters.

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 and soundly defeated in other parts of the country as well. As we enter what promises to be the longest campaign season in American history, let's hope the candidates are paying attention to what really happened in Kansas.

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