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Hoping to unseat Senate majority leader, Reno County Democrats become Republicans

By Elle Moxley | June 07, 2016

Hoping to unseat Senate majority leader, Reno County Democrats become Republicans
Photo by Elle Moxley/KCUR Frances Burnett, 91, of Arlington, switched her party registration from Democrat to Republican so she could vote in the Senate District 34 primary for Ed Berger.

#KS2016

This story is part of a 2016 Kansas elections collaboration involving KHI News Service, KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio.

For the first time in more than 30 years, there’s a Democrat running in every Kansas Senate district. But their fellow left-leaning Kansans might not be voting for them in August.

That’s because some are so fed up with Gov. Sam Brownback, they’d rather switch parties to vote for a moderate Republican in the Aug. 2 primary than allow the governor’s supporters to stay in the Legislature.

A lifelong resident of Arlington, 91-year-old Francis Burnett laughs when asked if she’s a Democrat.

“I’m a Republican right now,” she says. “There’s no way in this state to change anything by being a Democrat.”

Becoming a Republican

Fewer than 500 people live in Arlington, a sleepy town 20 miles southwest of Hutchinson in Reno County. There’s not much on Main Street — a cabinet shop, a salon, a newly-opened consignment store — but there is Carolyn’s Essenhaus, a Mennonite bakery-cafe where the coffee’s free. A Democrat hasn’t represented District 34 in the Kansas Senate since the early 1980s.

Burnett says she was at the library for her book club when she overheard someone talking about re-registering as a Republican.

“A big lightbulb came on,” Burnett says. “I thought, ‘If I change parties, I can vote in the primary.’”

In August, Burnett plans for vote for Ed Berger. She doesn’t know him, but she likes him better than incumbent Terry Bruce, the Senate Majority Leader she believes is in lockstep with Brownback.

Courting Democrats

“A 90-year-old lady and her friends are changing party affiliation so they can vote too,” Berger says. “That’s pretty humbling.”

In Hutchinson, Berger is a familiar face. He used to be president of the local community college. At Scuttlebutts Coffee, the baristas chirp “Hi Ed!” when Berger walks through the door for a meeting with educators.

Photo by Elle Moxley/KCUR Ed Berger responds to a message sent to his campaign's Facebook account. Berger is a Republican candidate for Senate District 34 in Reno County.

View larger photo

He tells the teachers he’s not a career politician.

“If I was going to do that, I should’ve done it 20 years ago,” Berger says. “I think change happens when you see things with outside eyes.”

Berger considers himself a lifelong Republican, but he’s convinced Brownback, Bruce and other ultra-conservative politicians are having a ruinous effect on Kansas.

“I perceive things are that bad,” Berger says. “I think unless change takes place very soon, we’re going to get into a very deep hole, very hard for us to get out.”

Bruce didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Reno County Election Office doesn’t track how many voters switch from one party to another. But there were 201 fewer registered Democrats last week than there were in mid-April. There are 173 more Republicans.

While those fluctuations can’t be solely attributed to party switching, it was pretty clear whom Berger was courting at Scuttlebutts as he offered up forms to those wanting to change their affiliation.

The real race?

Former Republican Senate President Dave Kerr is supporting Berger’s bid for his old seat.

“My races were always the general,” says Kerr, who unseated a Democratic incumbent in 1984.

“A lot of people have really not realized that the race that matters is the Republican primary. That’s the one where the race is decided.”

- Former Republican Senate President Dave Kerr

That’s changed, Kerr says. In recent election cycles, Democrats haven’t been able to field a full slate of candidates. This year the minority party does have candidates in all 40 Kansas Senate races, but there’s only a Democratic primary contest in five of those districts, and District 34 isn’t one of them.

“A lot of people have really not realized that the race that matters is the Republican primary,” Kerr says. “That’s the one where the race is decided.”

Democrats file

Leaders for both parties, however, are quick to dismiss party switching.

Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republicans, wrote in an email that even “FDR condemned party flipping as unethical.”

Kerry Gooch, executive director of the Kansas Democrats, called from Southwestern Kansas, where he was recruiting candidates the week before the June 1 filing deadline.

“One of the stories that’s been told around the state is most elections happen in the Republican primary, and we want to show people that’s not true,” Gooch says.

Gooch’s efforts paid off in District 34. If Berger does manage to oust Bruce, he’ll have to go a round in the general against Democrat Homer Gilson.

— Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR, a partner with KHI News Service in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas.