What To Watch For From the Kansas Democratic Caucuses

I missed my chance with Minnesota. The evening of the New Hampshire primary I wrote a preview that was informed by my time running a campaign in New Hampshire. I skipped Minnesota; probably a good thing, because I’m still gobsmacked at the awfulness of running caucuses for every state and federal office. But I’ve worked in other states, and learned enough that I might be able to help you understand and learn more from the results of the Democratic contests. I worked in Kansas in 2010, managing the campaign for the Democratic candidate for Governor. There are smart Democrats in Kansas who know far more than me about caucuses and internal Democratic politics. But I know enough to be curious about the results, and have questions that may inform how we think about the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as it moves to Michigan and Mississippi and Tuesday and five big states March 15th.

First, as you know, Kansas is a very Republican state. Unlike states in the South or in New England, it strongly favors the party it strongly favored in the late 19th century. But it’s a bit more complicated. Before the Civil War, there was “Bleeding Kansas,” as pro-slavery forces and abolitionist “Free Staters” fought skirmishes from 1854 to the start of the Civil War over whether Kansas would be a slave or free state. Lawrence, the home of the University of Kansas–my home for much of 2010–is a wonderful town, one of the most underrated college towns in the country. It was also an outpost of New England Republicanism in the nineteenth century, a center of abolitionism, and the scene of the one of the worst massacres of civilians in during the Civil War, when Quantrill’s Raiders marauded the town and killed over 150 civilians.

This history is important to today’s Kansas, because Kansas is unique in that for decades it had a New England Republican party which has become a Koch-funded, evangelical-influenced Republican party without losing it’s dominance in the state. Before Sam Brownback, Republican governors were typically moderates, and after Roe v Wade, every Republican governor was pro-choice. They were often quite like New England Republicans. Democrats were often more socially conservative than the Republicans, and were often more like Democrats in Oklahoma or Missouri than the more “ethnic” Democrats in the Northeast or the Great Lakes states.

Until recently Kansas was functionally a three-party state. Kansas Democrats–now fairly liberal and in line with the mainstream of the national Democratic coalition–could seldom muster legislative majorities or win statewide office against a unified Republican party. But by the 1980’s the Kansas GOP developed a strong conservative wing–heavily evangelical, and generously funded by the Wichita-based Koch operation–and increasingly won primaries and nominated hard-core conservatives. Moderate Republicans didn’t flee the party, but they often split their ticket and voted for Democrats (such as Kathleen Sebelius) against conservative Republicans, and the moderate Republicans in the legislature often controlled power with the help of the minority Democrats to keep conservatives out of power.

Since moderates stayed in the GOP, Kansas Democrats–which fairly pragmatic about the candidates they elect in primaries–are a fairly liberal bunch. They’re also almost entirely white, and mostly clustered in a handful of cities–primarily Wichita, Topeka, Lawrence, Kansas City, KS, and Johnson County, which includes the Kansas suburbs of the Kansas City metro area and is home to about one in five Kansans. Southeast Kansas was traditionally a Democratic stronghold, but that’s the part of Kansas that’s more like Arkansas than Nebraska, and like Appalachia and the Ozarks, that area has trended strongly toward the GOP in recent elections.

Here is some of what I’ll be looking at as the results start to come in.

  • WYANDOTTE COUNTY–Another way to say “Kansas City, Kansas,” also called Kay Cee Kay. It’s mostly African-American. Will Bernie make any dent there, or will Hillary rack up some more 85-15 margins?
  • SEDGEWICK COUNTY–Location of the state’s largest city, Wichita. Of all the big Democratic “strongholds” in all the states in which I’ve worked, I’ve never seen one where institutionally Democrats are any weaker. There was almost no volunteer or donor base and the party apparatus was staggeringly weak. There’s almost no non-party progressive infrastructure in Kansas, and what did exist in the past–a small but not-insignificant labor movement–is now beaten down. The city is divided along black/Latino/non-Latino white lines, and the non-Latino whites are mostly Republican. What will turnout be like. And will we get a better idea how Bernie did among Latinos than we did in Nevada?
  • SOUTHEAST KANSAS–Will the results here look like Oklahoma, where conservative Democrats go strongly for Sanders?
  • LAWRENCE–This is as liberal a city as you’ll find between Austin and Minneapolis. My only question is whether Bernie clears 75%.
  • JOHNSON COUNTY–What happens here probably translates to other states more than the results anywhere else in Kansas. The Democrats here are mostly well-educated, fairly prosperous, and similar to suburban Democrats and independents you’ll find around Columbus, or Richmond, or Denver. Again, being a caucus, the results will skew leftward and toward the activist base. But Johnson County is the kind of key suburban region where November turnout is usually high and Democrats can lose votes on taxes and distribution of wealth but also pick up votes on social and cultural values.

What matters the most is the delegate count. As a caucus, what happens in Kansas has limited value for inferring about the general election. But with more caucuses coming up, if Bernie romps here, he will probably net a lot of delegates in upcoming contests like Washington and the Dakotas. But if Hillary keeps it close, or even pulls off an upset, it will further undermine Sanders’ claim that he’s expanding the electorate, and be another sign that it’s nearly impossible for him to keep Clinton from locking up the nomination early.

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One Response to What To Watch For From the Kansas Democratic Caucuses

  1. norkster says:

    There were things going on with indigenous “civilians” throughout the Civil War, and not all of them fall under the blanket term “Indian Wars,” which itself was usually whites making treaties promising ever-shrinking lands to numerous tribes, breaking each and every treaty, and then calling it a “war” when the victims of the numerous land thefts were driven to starvation and fought back. JS

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