Kansas Democrats' Best Case Scenario

In a year when Republicans are expected to make gains, the best hopes for Kansas Democrats are two unlikely candidates: Though Dennis McKinney is the...
by | March 31, 2010

In a year when Republicans are expected to make gains, the best hopes for Kansas Democrats are two unlikely candidates: Though Dennis McKinney is the state treasurer and Steve Six is the attorney general, neither was elected to either office. In fact, neither has even run for statewide office before.

The new jobs for McKinney and Six are only two parts of a complicated shuffle of officeholders. Of the six statewide officials Kansas elected in 2006, the most recent year the state held constitutional officer elections, only the state insurance commissioner remains in the office for which she was elected.

In 2006, Democrats looked as though they were on the rise in Kansas, a long-time bastion of rock-ribbed Republicanism. Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius won re-election easily, with the help of Republican-turned-Democrat Mark Parkinson as her running mate. Paul Morrison, another former Republican, ousted Phill Kline, the GOP attorney general and nationally noted abortion foe.

For Democrats, the good times didn't last long. Morrison departed in a scandal. Sebelius joined President Barack Obama's administration. Parkinson decided not to run for office this year, nor did the Democrat who replaced him as lieutenant governor. Republicans are heavily favored to win the governorship and the state's open U.S. Senate seat. In a state that still has three Republicans for every two Democrats, the Sebelius years increasingly look less like a Democratic renaissance and more like a short deviation from Republican rule.

That leaves McKinney and Six, both of whom are running for full terms at their current offices, as the strongest Democrats left standing. Just how strong they are is an open question. Before Six took office in early 2008 after the resignation of Paul Morrison, he was a judge and a political unknown. McKinney, a former Democratic leader in the state House of Representatives, took over in early 2009 after the state treasurer, a Republican, was elected to Congress.

As appointed officeholders, McKinney and Six have some advantages of incumbents, but not others. They're raising a lot of money, but still aren't as well known around the state as previously elected candidates. Republicans are targeting both for defeat, with Derek Schmidt, the state Senate majority leader, running against Six.

Victories by Six and McKinney--and perhaps for secretary of state--would give Democrats a bench of strong future aspirants, even if Republicans won the big prizes for Senate and governor. In retrospect, that's what the party lacked in 2006, even with its big wins. "If the Democrats were able to win two or three statewide offices, they would say this was not a disastrous year," says Bob Beatty, an assistant professor of political science at Washburn University, "because it could have been much worse."

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