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Kansas, the three-party state: moderate and conservative Republicans compete on the legislative battlefield - Political Professional

"People to my left need a little work. People to my right are crazy."

--Bob Tomlinson, assistant insurance commissioner of Kansas and a moderate Republican

At first glance, Kansas would appear to be one of the safest states for Republican candidates. While Al Gore was narrowly edging George W. Bush in the nationwide popular vote, Kansas voters backed the eventual president with 58 percent support. In 2002 U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R) won re-election with no Democratic opponent, garnering 84 percent of the vote against third-party challengers.

Kansas, the three-party state: moderate and conservative Republicans compete on the legislative battlefield - Political ProfessionalStatewide, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats more than 3-to-2. Kansas's Electoral College votes have gone to the Republican ticket in every presidential election since 1964, and veteran observers expect that trend to continue in 2004 and beyond.

Despite this, the results of the 2002 elections in the Sunflower State weren't exactly slam dunks for the GOP. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Sebelius won 53 percent of the vote to become the ninth Democratic governor in Kansas history. Longtime Republican politico Phill Kline barely fended off Geary County Prosecutor Chris Biggs (D) to be the state attorney general. Kline, a former state representative and one-time congressional candidate, is known for his strong ties to the right and outspoken anti-abortion views.

The Democrats' success in a traditionally Republican state is an example of a peculiar phenomenon in modern American politics: The three-party state. The moderate and conservative wings of Republican parties often function separately, each running their own candidates for major offices, raising their own money, and often fighting bitterly against one another only to leave Democrats as tie-breakers. The split within the party has led to tactical shifts in which conservatives and Democrats often team up to embarrass the ruling moderate Republicans.

In Kansas, the break in the Republican party is not surprising, given that the GOP has dominated politics throughout Kansas's history as a state, except during a few years of populist insurgence in the late 19th century. The state has had only short periods when Republicans were not the majority in the legislature. This makes it much more difficult for Kansas Republicans to campaign on promises to prevent big government, because they would then have to fight the institution that they created. Nor can they blame Democrats for taxes, budget or social policies.

Instead, the right wing of the GOP has begun to unleash its wrath on the party's moderates. In the late 1980s, conservative Republican Kansans started believing that leaders in the state's party were betraying post-Reagan GOP priorities. University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis noticed the split in 1989, when rebel Republicans in the state House fought for bigger tax cuts and aggressively promoted conservative social priorities such as abortion restrictions.

The state school board's famous 2000 decision regarding evolution may have been the final stab that split the GOP. The elected state school board voted not to make evolution part of the recommended guidelines for teaching science in schools, in effect leaving that decision to districts or individual teachers. Moderate Republicans reacted much more strongly to the decision than Democrats. Supported by the National Education Association (NEA), moderates targeted and defeated two conservative members of the board in the Republican primaries.

The new school board quietly restored evolution to the recommended science curriculum in 2001. But in 2002, conservatives fought the moderate-Democrat alliance to a draw. Now five conservatives square off against two moderates and three Democrats. The rift within the GOP cuts so deeply that even though they control seven of the 10 seats, they have asked a Democrat to serve as chair because she looked like the only person who could call a truce between the warring factions.

You Say You Want an Evolution

In wealthy, suburban Johnson County, the evolution controversy divided Republicans. While the religious right has some base here, particularly in the fast-growing, outer suburb of Olathe, many Johnson County activists and politicos resent any threat to their cherished public schools, their reputation, and their funding.

The state's largest, Johnson County, embodies the American suburban dream. A bedroom community for Kansas City, Mo., the county took off during the post-World War II housing boom and just kept growing. Sprint Inc. (telecommunications), Yellow Transportation Inc., and Waddell and Reed Inc. (financial services) are now based here. Few states can single out a county where population and income contrast so sharply with the rest of the state. Johnson County's population in the 1990s grew by 27 percent, while statewide, Kansas mustered less than 6 percent growth (and much of this was due to Johnson County itself). Median family income here is $72,987 while the comparable statewide figure is only $49,624, again painting a picture of a county starkly at odds with the surrounding state.

In 2002, state legislators gave schools the same amount of money per student that they did in 2001 (though they tinkered with the complicated school funding formula in some other ways, as they do every year). The districts did not get any extra money to cover skyrocketing health insurance premiums for teachers and other staff.

This did not go over well in Johnson County. By summer--in time for the August Republican primary--bumper stickers and signs sprouted, bearing the message "Elect candidates that support our public schools." Public school advocates and NEA allies helped two moderate candidates trounce two outspoken conservative legislators who'd voted against increasing the sales tax. Moderates used those votes to portray their opponents as betrayers of public schools.

Statewide, moderates scored other victories. First-time candidate Bill Kassebaum--son of former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker--beat Shari Weber, the conservative state House majority leader. And no moderate incumbent lost a seat to a conservative challenger.

On another pet GOP issue--being friendly to business--the self-described "mod squad" has developed close relationships to insurance companies and the state's Farm Bureau. Former Gov. Bill Graves, a moderate Republican, tied the state school board's evolution controversy to the state's business climate, fretting that if the state gained a reputation as a backwater, it would deter businesses from moving to the state.

"Mods" emphasize that they are not the same as Democrats. Instead, they follow a philosophy of maintaining the status quo and avoiding major changes in either a liberal or conservative direction. "Do no harm" is the guiding mantra, said Bob Tomlinson, assistant insurance commissioner and former state legislator.

Many are pro-choice on abortion rights, and some--especially those from Johnson County--oppose permits for carrying concealed handguns. One conservative state senator described the mods as more liberal than Democrats.

Indeed, conservatives have pursued alliances with Democrats. When the moderate Republican state Senate delivered a map for the 2002 redistricting process, they were decimated. The map was redrawn by what Graves called an unholy alliance of conservatives and Democrats who were unhappy with the first set of maps. He vetoed the new map, only to see the unholy alliance stay together on a second floor vote and override him.

In the near future, two national politicos concerned with this rift will be U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore (D) and U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R). Moore has held on for several terms--even surviving a Republican-drawn redistricting map--in the 3rd District, which includes Johnson County. But registered Republicans outnumber Democrats there, and the GOP rift may be his best hope to hang onto the seat.

Unlike Roberts, Brownback is strongly identified with the conservatives and could conceivably face a strong challenge, either from a moderate such as Bill Kassebaum or a coalition-building Democrat such as former U.S. Rep. Jim Slattery.

Does Kansas's rift portend three-party politics in the rest of the nation? Perhaps so. California features a similar GOP split that has helped the Democrats build a solid majority in the general assembly and carry the state's electoral votes in the last several presidential elections.

But the similarities may end there. Kansas features an overwhelming, though sharply divided, Republican majority. Kansas Republicans have more to gain by nominating candidates such as Roberts that can bridge the party's rift.