This story is part of a 2016 Kansas elections collaboration involving the KHI News Service, KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio.
Growing up in Shawnee, Tom Cox remembers looking up to “traditional Republicans.”
Politicians like Bill Graves, Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum – Kansans who were willing to reach across the aisle and set political ideology aside in the interest of public policy.
“My pitch at the door? ‘I’m running against a Brownback Republican, and I’m an anti-Brownback Republican,’” Cox said. “We need to save our state. We need to focus on tax reform, education reform and protecting local governments as a start.”
Running on a pro-public education platform, Cox unseated one of those Brownback Republicans, Brett Hildabrand, in the August primary. But the anointed Republican nominee for House District 17 still has to win in November.
In a lot of ways, though, Cox still sounds like he’s running against Hildabrand, which could be a problem.
Because his Democratic opponent, Helen Stoll, sounds like she’s running against Tom Cox.
“We keep referring to my opponent as moderate, but I don’t know that we know that for certain,” Stoll said.
Democrats also claim ‘moderate’ label
Stoll said the Kansas Democratic Party is the party of fiscal responsibility.
“I think what we see happening right now, the decisions that are being made, the tax plan, the way the bills are being paid and spending is being done, it is not conservative,” she said, alluding to the current Republican majority in the Legislature.
Paul Davis, the Democrat who challenged Brownback in 2014, won this Johnson County district.
That creates an opening for Stoll. She doesn’t think it matters that Cox and so many other moderates won their primaries.
“To my mind, nothing has changed because the problems are not fixed yet,” she said.
Stoll said there’s too much infighting in the Republican Party for moderates to move the state forward.
But most of the competitive matchups this fall aren’t between self-described “moderates” and Democrats. They’re between “Brownback Republicans” and Democrats.
“I always start off saying I’m the library director and I serve on city council,” said Adrienne Olejnik, a Democrat running in the expansive 51st House District. “That way, people hopefully realize I’m a pretty normal person. You know, I’m like them. I’m involved in the community, and I want to work with others. I also am very clear that party lines don’t mean a great deal to me.”
Olejnick has been knocking on doors in Shawnee, Riley, Wabaunsee, Pottawatomie and Lyon counties for months. She’s called herself a conservative Democrat, described her politics as “in the middle” and claimed to be the “real” moderate in the race.
“Regardless of which party you officially align yourself with, it labels you,” she said. “It defines you. So in some ways, you’re working against that all the time.”
If Olejnik can unseat conservative incumbent Ron Highland, it would be a big win for a Kansas Democratic Party trying to regain ground. Democrats haven’t had a majority in the state House for a quarter century. They haven’t had a Senate majority for nearly 100 years. It’s not going to happen this election cycle, either.
Democrats could give moderates a majority
But if moderates with a “D” next to their names can work with moderates with an “R” next to their names, the Statehouse looks very different come January.
“Every one of those conservatives that a Democrat defeats gives moderates more power in the Republican caucus to elect their own leadership and puts moderates in a position where they have to bargain less with conservatives,” said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
Miller wasn’t surprised by how many moderates won in August. After all, moderates hold seats in Johnson County, and in far western Kansas where President Obama only got 15 percent of the vote.
“They can win anywhere in a low-turnout primary, no matter how Republican or conservative a seat is as long as it’s their voters getting out,” Miller said.
General election voters don’t turn out for down-ballot legislative races. They turn out to pick the president.
“If Trump keeps 1 percent of Republicans from coming out, if they stay home, that could be the difference in some of these races,” Miller said. “One thing we know about state legislative races, not just in Kansas but elsewhere, is voters don't pay a lot of attention to them in November.”
That means the vast majority of Kansans won’t be casting anti-Brownback ballots. They’ll vote for Democrats or Republicans, not moderates.
— Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR.