What could an ur­ban-ru­ral di­vide mean in Kansas pol­i­tics in the fu­ture?

The Wichita Eagle (Sunday) - - News - BY JONATHAN SHORMAN AND BRYAN LOWRY

It was a sharp con­trast: A map of how Kansas coun­ties voted for gover­nor was a sea of red, with only a few is­lands of blue in the cen­tral and east­ern half of the state.

Those is­lands were the state’s ur­ban cen­ters, and they held Demo­cratic vot­ers that pow­ered Laura Kelly to vic­tory by 5 per­cent­age points — or nearly 46,000 votes — over Repub­li­can Kris Kobach.

Politi­cians and po­lit­i­cal ob­servers in­creas­ingly speak of an ur­ban-ru­ral di­vide in Kansas pol­i­tics, es­pe­cially af­ter the No­vem­ber elec­tion.

In the fu­ture, the di­vide might make it eas­ier for Democrats to take the gover­nor’s of­fice, or even con­sis­tently hold a con­gres­sional seat. For the first time in years, Kansas Democrats grew as a per­cent­age of the state’s reg­is­tered vot­ers. They now ac­count for about a quar­ter of all vot­ers.

It also means that Repub­li­cans may for­tify their hold on ru­ral Kansas and that ru­ral Democrats will have a more dif­fi­cult time get­ting elected. Sev­eral ru­ral Demo­cratic law­mak­ers lost their races. The state now will have no Demo­cratic state law­mak­ers west of Hutchin­son, and just one in south­east Kansas.

“If you two years ago, you’d have asked me that, I wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily have agreed that there is that di­vide. But based on this most re­cent elec­tion, it seems as if it’s hap­pen­ing,” said Rep. Mon­ica Mur­nan, a Demo­crat who rep­re­sents Pitts­burg and will soon be the sole Demo­cratic state law­maker from south­east Kansas.

In the state’s 10 most­pop­u­lated coun­ties — which in­cludes John­son and Sedg­wick, among oth­ers — Kelly re­ceived nearly 86,000 more votes than Paul Davis, the party’s 2014 nom­i­nee for gover­nor. By com­par­i­son, Kobach got only about 7,100 more votes in those coun­ties than Repub­li­can Sam Brown­back did run­ning for re-elec­tion in 2014.

“I would def­i­nitely call this a pur­ple county,” said Nancy Leiker, who chairs the Demo­cratic Party in John­son County.

Since 2014, the county party has stepped up its can­di­date re­cruit­ment ef­forts, dou­bled its num­ber of precinct com­mit­teemen and women and adopted more sys­tem­atic ap­proach to voter turnout. That’s pro­duced re­sults.

“In ’14 we had two state reps. In ’16 we added four to that. And this year we added four,” Leiker said. “John­son County has never had 10 (Demo­cratic) state reps be­fore… And this year we pushed four of the five statewide races blue (in the county).”

In ad­di­tion to Kelly, John­son County also backed the Demo­crat in the races for sec­re­tary of state, state trea­surer and at­tor­ney gen­eral — even though the at­tor­ney gen­eral can­di­date, Sarah Swain, was dis­avowed by the state Demo­cratic Party over past con­tro­ver­sial state­ments.

None of those Demo­cratic can­di­dates won, but the county helped Sharice Davids cap­ture a con­gres­sional seat for Democrats for the first time in a decade.

Davids also put sig­nif­i­cant en­ergy into reach­ing out to mi­nor­ity and young vot­ers in Wyan­dotte County, which has a low turnout rate.

She vis­ited high schools around the district and was one of only two con­gres­sional can­di­dates to at­tend a fo­rum for African Amer­i­can women in the Kansas City area about a month be­fore the elec­tion.

Wyan­dotte County, which in­cludes ur­ban Kansas City, Kansas, set a record for turnout in a mid-term elec­tion at 49.1 per­cent, a 13.5 per­cent­age point in­crease over its 2014 turnout rate.

“Elected of­fi­cials, politi­cians in gen­eral, don’t al­ways make the ef­fort to reach out to as many com­mu­ni­ties as pos­si­ble, so that was one of the things that we re­ally tried to make sure we did,” Davids said.

The surge of Demo­cratic votes in John­son and Wyan­dotte County didn’t ex­tend to Sedg­wick County, how­ever.

While the county went for Kelly, vot­ers did not back other Demo­cratic statewide can­di­dates. And it backed U.S. Rep. Ron Estes over Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­date James Thomp­son.

Demo­cratic gains in ur­ban and sub­ur­ban cen­ters did not trans­late into in­creased suc­cess in ru­ral ar­eas. They lost sev­eral ru­ral House seats, though with ur­ban and sub­ur­ban pick­ups they ap­pear likely to con­tinue to hold 40 of the cham­ber’s 125 seats.

Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Repub­li­can who man­aged Kobach’s cam­paign, doesn’t think there’s an ur­ban-ru­ral di­vide. “I think it re­ally just comes down to the is­sues,” Claeys said.

Kelly Arnold, the out­go­ing chair­man of the Kansas Repub­li­can Party, said the de­mo­graph­ics of po­lit­i­cal par­ties shift over time and that many ru­ral peo­ple are mov­ing into ur­ban ar­eas. The Repub­li­can Party needs to make sure its mes­sages and poli­cies are im­por­tant to ur­ban vot­ers, he said.

“It is some­thing that as we move for­ward we need to make sure we’re spend­ing enough time on the is­sues that are im­por­tant to each district, whether that be a ru­ral district or an ur­ban district,” Arnold said.

Pa­trick Miller, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Kansas, said the ur­ban­rural di­vide has grown grad­u­ally, both in Kansas and na­tion­ally.

Kelly won nine Kansas coun­ties, but none west of Wichita and only one in south­east Kansas. Kansas House and Se­nate maps show vast swaths of red in western and cen­tral Kansas, too.

“Kansas is par­al­lel­ing the United States as a whole and this elec­tion we see it starkly,” said Bob Beatty, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Wash­burn Univer­sity.


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