What’s the matter with (Republicans in) Kansas?

Why in the name of sanity would any ambitious Republican in Kansas decide to switch parties and run as a Democrat? Isn’t that sort of like someone trying to earn the title of the most popular man in Boston by declaring himself to be a Yankees fan?

Kansas is one of the most dependably Republican states in the country: Bush beat Kerry 62% to 36.62% in 2004; Bush beat Gore 58.04% to 37.24% in 2000; Dole (a Kansas favorite son) beat Clinton 54.29% to 36.08% in 1996.

The state hasn’t voted Democratic in a presidential election since the 1964 Johnson landslide (the last time before that was the Roosevelt landslide of 1936 when it went against favorite son Alf Landon). No Democrat has represented Kansas in the US Senate since 1939.

Yet look what’s happening this year:

(Channel 49 ABC) Eight Republicans in state races have switched to Democratic Party this year

There’s a good discussion of the same development by Kos.

So what’s going on here?

As Thomas Frank describes in his book What’s the matter with Kansas?, a war has been blazing in the Sunflower State between so-called moderate (pro-business type) Republicans and the Religious Right.

That war’s over now — won decisively by the Religious Right, not by compromise and conciliation, but through bloody hand-to-hand political combat: And now that they’ve prevailed, they see little reason to give so as much as an inch to placate the moderates.

Gen. MacArthur’s speech during the surrender ceremony on the U.S.S. Missouri comes to mind:

The issues, involving divergent ideals and ideologies, have been determined on the battlefields of the world and hence are not for our discussion or debate.

But it’s this very “we won so we get everything we want” attitude that’s the Religious Right’s Achilles heel: Because while they may have the numbers and organizational strength to control the Republican Party in Kansas, they don’t have the muscle needed to dependably win statewide races in the general election. Sure, Republicans will continue to win most elections; this is still Kansas, after all; but sometimes when they push too hard a big one can get away.

Thus, in 2002 Democrat Kathleen Sebelius was elected governor with a solid 53% to 45% victory, an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that it was a Republican year nationally. A big part of the credit for this success, certainly, goes to Sebelius herself, who makes a very strong candidate (she’s expected to win reelection this year): But political graveyards in Kansas are littered with strong Democratic candidates, mowed down by the overwhelming GOP advantage.

The Religious Right overplayed its hand in the 2002 governor’s race by trying to cram an extreme social conservative candidate down the throats of “moderate Republicans’” who, rather than swallowing it, spit it out whole, voting for Sebelius in critical numbers.

The disillusionment of these moderates with the state of Republican politics in the state is growing yearly, even if many continue to suffer from Chronic Moderate Republican Denial Syndrome.

The current spattering of desertions by moderate Republican politicians to the Democratic Party is simply the next logical step in the process; they’re dead in their old party and hope to have a chance for a future in a new one.

And this isn’t just a Kansas thing: Intolerance for anyone but true believers is endemic to the Religious Right. When you march in God’s army, after all, anyone who isn’t marching with you is by definition an infidel.

All of which means that we Democrats have a choice: We can accept these political immigrants with open arms, or we can treat them suspiciously and with resentment. If we ever want to regain the status of a majority party, however, the smart answer should be obvious.

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