Running as Republicans in the early 1990s, they were called “stealth” candidates. Many voters, in Johnson County and across Kansas, were not familiar with them. These ultraconservatives, moving away from the traditional GOP ideology, wanted it that way. Now, in late 2012, they could not be in the shadows if they wanted to be. That quiet start two decades ago has grown into a highly visible, dominant force in Sunflower State politics.
I remember talking to Phill Kline while he was running for the Kansas House early in his political career. Asked about hot button issues, notably abortion, he replied that he would work within Kansas law. Kline, then a resident of Shawnee, was relying on the pat answer of the day. What the conservatives were not saying emerged later. They intended to change the law.
The right-wing charge to the top started at the very bottom of the political chain. They hit the precincts, capturing control of county committees, and then with unrelenting hard work, proceeded to extend their influence to the congressional level. Their grass-roots success paid off years later here when a majority of conservative committeemen and committeewomen chose a sheriff in a run-off to fill a vacancy.
In 2007 the party faithful used their power again, this time to hand the job of Johnson County district attorney to Kline after he was defeated for a second term as Kansas attorney general.
Their clout at the state level proved pivotal in the 2002 election. They won a majority of Kansas House seats, giving them enough votes to select the speaker, other GOP House officers and committee chairs for the 2003 session. They promptly embarked on attempts to carry out an agenda that included cutting taxes, starving education funding, skimping on social programs and imposing other measures to shrink the size of government.
The conservatives reached a new pinnacle in 2010 when Sam Brownback, a far-right Republican, was elected governor. Now the conservatives wielded influence in two branches of Kansas government.
The new governor quickly launched an attack on programs long thought to be effective. Too often he made changes without doing the careful study that was needed. It suited conservatives but eroded Kansas’ traditional support of education and aid for the physically and mentally challenged, among other essential needs.
Pushed by the House, the Legislature went on a tax-cutting spree in the session earlier this year. The loss of revenue shocked Kansans concerned about the state’s fiscal health.
The ultraconservatives scored still another victory in the Kansas Senate elections this year. With the help of Brownback, their candidates ousted key GOP moderates who were stumbling blocks. Now they have a majority in both chambers.
The conservative conquest is still a work in progress. The next target is the courts. Some judicial decisions have upset the right in recent years. They want to rid the state judiciary of “activist judges.”
When the Legislature convenes next month, Brownback and conservatives who dominate the body will have the votes to abolish Kansas’ widely respected nonpartisan court plan used for selecting judges of the Kansas Court of Appeals. With Brownback choosing judges and the Senate confirming them, the court could become politicized, allowing ever more conservative sway in Kansas government.
And, as the result of irresponsible tax reductions, the Legislature will face a budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars in the new session.
As of now, there is no way to stop the assault on what has been fair-minded, compassionate government in Kansas.
Question one: Looking to future elections, who can stop the conservatives, and how?
Question two: How long will it take Kansas to recover, if and when the tide turns?
Freelance columnist Bob Sigman, a former member of The Star Editorial Board, writes in this space once a month.