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New life for GOP moderates?

Chapman Rackaway

By A Contributor

Chapman Rackaway Contributing Writer

Political parties are like sports teams. Most fans to stay with one from cradle to grave. People leave political parties with that same rarity.

So it was noteworthy that Wichita’s Jean Schodorf, one of the moderate Republicans unseated in the primary election by Gov. Sam Brownback’s allies, announced Aug. 30 that she was leaving the Republican Party. Schodorf’s departure makes a strong statement about the current state of party politics in Kansas.

Animosity within the GOP built up for more than a decade until war broke out in 2012. Factionalism is common in majority parties like the Kansas Republican Party. However, those factions tend to fight in the Legislature and settle their differences before they spill over into contested primaries. When the fights transcend legislative containment and affect elections, they can spell doom for the majority party. The choice Schodorf makes will likely have a lasting impact on Kansas politics, if for no other reason than she may start a chain reaction that could shift the partisan balance in the state.  

One obvious strategy would be for Schodorf to join the Demo-cratic Party. While a distant second in voter registrations, Democrats are competitive in Kansas at the right time and in the right district. Schodorf’s Democratic realignment would send a clear signal that unless one is in strong lockstep with Gov. Brownback, the Republican Party is no welcome place.

The Democrats until recently had a strong campaign apparatus that could be rebuilt with the right leadership. Democrats would not supplant Republicans as the majority party, but could return to their competitiveness in the Sebelius era. However, the last time moderate Republicans were enticed to switch to the Democrats, only a few made the move. Paul Morrison and Mark Parkinson did not inspire a flood of Republicans to leave the party, but they were not shown the door in the emphatic way Schodorf and her kind were.  

Schodorf and the bevy of other ousted moderate Republicans like Tim Owens, Roger Reitz and Dick Kelsey could simply run as independents. Unaffiliated voters in Kansas make up a smaller percentage of voters than they do nationwide, but the number is growing, and popular dissatisfaction with the two main parties could inspire a Ross Perot-style anti-party revolt. However, even Perot eventually decided he needed a party, which leads to the third option.  

Assuming conservative and moderate Republicans are in approximately the same numbers, rather than moving in with Democrats, Schodorf may decide to build a new house and form a new party entirely. Third parties like the Populists have a history in Kansas, even sweeping the GOP out in the late 1800s. Former Gov. Bill Graves and Senate President Steve Morris were able to quickly build a campaign apparatus outside the existing GOP structure during the primary campaign and fund it, although the Democratic-allied sources of that money would not likely be available for a new party.

Moderate Republicans do vote distinctly differently from their Democratic counterparts, so they might be an awkward fit there. But a third party, able to control its own agenda and platform, raise money and offer a consistent alternative vision might be a viable option. The history of third parties does not generate confidence, however. Whe-ther it is Perot’s Reform Party or the Know-Nothings and Anti-Masonic parties, third parties tend to have a quick rise and quicker fall. The Libertarians and Socialists aside, most startup political parties do not last more than an election or two.

But most startup parties lack the numbers and structure that Schodorf’s group could offer. And most of those other parties were national, where voters are more divided between the main parties. Here in Kansas, there is a sizable chunk of the population that just might respond to a new political entity.

The divorce from Brownback’s conservatives just might give Schodorf and her allies the opportunity to blaze a new trail and compete with a brand new party.  

Chapman Rackaway is an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.


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