In Kansas, Democrats Test the Power of Quasi-Incumbency

A list of the most interesting downballot elections of the year slowly is fermenting in my brain. High on that list are the Kansas races ...
by | February 9, 2010

A list of the most interesting downballot elections of the year slowly is fermenting in my brain. High on that list are the Kansas races for attorney general, state treasurer and now, perhaps, secretary of state.

Pretty much every year is a Republican year in Kansas. So, in what looks like a Republican year nationwide, it comes as no surprise that Republicans are set to dominate the highest-profile contests. For U.S. Senate and for governor, Democrats (for now, anyway) are putting up minimal resistance. To the extent that there are top Democrats in the state, they passed on these races.

A Republican sweep in the state, however, isn't guaranteed. That's because Democrats have incumbents running for election for attorney general and treasurer.

You'll note that I didn't say these incumbents are running for "reelection." They aren't. Both were appointed since Kansas last elected constitutional officers in 2006. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (now in the Obama administration) appointed Steve Six attorney general when his predecessor, Paul Morrison (also a Democrat), left in a scandal in early 2008. Sebelius appointed Dennis McKinney treasurer early last year afer his predecessor (a Republican) won a seat in Congress in November 2008. Both are hoping to win full terms this year.

As of yesterday, we may have another similar situation in the race for secretary of state. Ron Thornburgh, the Republican incumbent, announced that he's resigning early to take a private sector job. If Gov. Mark Parkinson (who took over from Sebelius) appoints a Democrat who wants a full term, that will make three Democratic incumbents running for "election."

Whether the governor will do that isn't clear yet. Parkinson, a former Republican, hasn't made promoting the electoral prospects of Democrats a top priority -- otherwise, he'd be running for something instead of stepping down after he finishes Sebelius' term. Parkinson appointed a replacement for his own former office, lieutenant governor, who is not running for anything.

The Democrats' struggle to find Senate and gubernatorial candidates this year demonstrates why the downballot races are important. When Sebelius won in 2002 and especially when she and Morrison won landslide victories in 2006, Democrats appeared to be on the rise in Kansas. The divide between moderate and conservative Republicans over social issues was hurting the G.O.P.

In retrospect, it looks more like Sebelius simply was an unusually talented politician. Democrats didn't have the bench to sustain their gains.

The downballot races this year will determine whether Democrats' get the bench they need going forward. Six and McKinney will have some of the advantages that normally come with incumbency. They'll be able to talk about what they've accomplished in office. They ought to be able to raise plenty of money.

That said, their names probably won't be familiar to most of the voters in the state. They'll probably be facing a Republican tide. Still, I'd imagine the hopes of the party will be riding on them because, for Kansas Democrats, quasi-incumbents are the best they've got right now.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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