Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ranting On...the Kansas Defectors

House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D-KS)
We aren't in Kansas anymore.  At least that cliche seems to be what happened yesterday in one of the more shocking turns of events of the electoral cycle.  In a year where Republicans have succeeded across the country in red states (we'll do a Senate check-in later this week, but the GOP certainly has done themselves a lot of favors in the quest to take back the upper chamber), first-term incumbent Gov. Sam Brownback has been that rare Republican who cannot seem to get his race together, despite the deep red nature of his constituency.  House Minority Leader Paul Davis is hardly what you'd consider a rock star candidate, but occasionally keeping calm and in the right place at the right time pays off, and the polls have shown this race to be tight for months.

Perhaps that's why Davis enjoyed a moment of awe yesterday in Topeka, when over 100 former and current Republican officeholders in Kansas endorsed the Democrat, citing their frustrations with Brownback and their yearning for a more moderate approach to government.  Numbered amongst this group include three former State Senate Presidents (including one who lost to a conservative challenger in 2012) and one statewide official (Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger).

I cannot underscore how shocking this, particularly for the GOP.  While most of these people happen to be former officeholders rather than current ones, it still is, while not technically political suicide, certainly a very hard to cure political wound that almost none of them will recover from.  In an era where many members of the GOP are far more concerned about a primary challenge from the right than a general election attack from the left, these people have completely risked any future runs as Republicans by taking on the standard-bearer.  I mean, Republicans have lost races based on arbitrary votes-endorsing a Democrat is far easier to communicate to the public, meaning these primary campaigns got a lot easier.

Kansas has long been a home to a weird fight between moderates and the hard right.  Part of why Rep. Dennis Moore was able to hold the third district for so long for the Democrats was because the Republicans kept waging bloody primary battles over who would take him on in the general, and frequently the conservative would beat the more electable moderate (this was long before the Tea Party became a thing).  This in-fighting has frequently cost the Republicans seats in the Sunflower State.

That being said, there's a larger question here: at what point does endorsing the opposite party's candidate mean that you're no longer a member of your own party?  Partisan politicians are not voters who get to pick-and-choose which side they want to win in a given election-there is an expectation that you stick with your party at least nominally.  You won't see people like Mark Begich and Mary Landrieu running fast enough away from the President, but it would cost them their reelection if they came out and said that they would have voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.  In fact, one of the best ways to pick out the candidates who are losing their reelection is to find those who are saying, "I'm running as a Democrat, but I'm really more of a Republican" (this is why I'm certain that Nick Rahall is doomed).  This line of thinking never works the way it was intended, and there's a reason for that: you need your base just as much as you need independents.

Sure, the middle and the swing voters may be where the election is won or loss, but if you risk alienating the base too much you are going to lose regardless of what the middle thinks because the base will look elsewhere or just stay home.  This is partially why more elections have started to reflect the presidential results of their constituencies: with more and more people able to track what a candidate says through news-based websites, Twitter, and YouTube, that means that they cannot say one thing in one part of the state and change their tune in another part.  Someone like Mary Landrieu cannot have her base and her moderates too without taking firm stands that one side will find unpopular.

The Kansas endorsements, therefore, mean that most if not all of these candidates have signed away their careers.  Primaries will almost certainly come for any incumbents on this list, and thanks to web-based research, any of these politicians hoping for a comeback as a Republican can be assured that their opponents will have long memories.

As a partisan politician, though, I'm going to say something politically incorrect about this: I think this makes sense.  I am thrilled beyond thrilled that Davis got these endorsements from Republicans because it helps his chances, but I would be royally angry if I were a Republican about this.  If you go out as a partisan campaigner for years getting these men and women their jobs and have them endorse the "enemy," there's quite a bit of betrayal there.  I felt the same way when Zell Miller endorsed George W. Bush and Joe Lieberman endorsed John McCain.  I also felt this way when all of those Democrats endorsed Chris Christie and when a few Democrats allowed the Republicans to gain majorities in Washington and New York in the state legislatures.  There's a price to be paid for using a party's label and getting the "yellow dog" mentality of the base-you have to suck it up when you're endorsing, and as a Democrat, I'd favor primary challenges in all of these cases, particularly when the district being represented (like with Lieberman and some of the NJ Democrats) favors us anyway.

I'll be interested to see where the Davis campaign goes from here, but I'm curious as to your thoughts-do you think that these Republicans (from a merely pragmatic standpoint) should have endorsed Davis?    Sound off in the comments!

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