Conservatism takes a right turn in Kansas politics

Wichita EagleJuly 9, 2012 

There’s a new political alignment in Kansas, a new and stronger strain of conservatism that has moved the right more to the right, leaving some conservative politicians looking more like the new center, experts say.

For many years, Kansas has been divided into three basic political camps: conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Democrats.

With Republicans dominant and rising, most recent political battles have centered on disagreements between the two wings of that party. The vastly outnumbered Democrats have only occasionally been able to make themselves relevant, by aligning with one GOP faction or another on specific issues.

But that tidy Republican conservative vs. moderate shorthand has broken down lately as the political fulcrum has shifted well to the right, according to university political scientists and other observers of the Kansas system.

And as the line demarcating conservatism has moved to the right, some elected officials who were once at the far conservative end of the political spectrum are now considered by many conservatives to be not conservative enough.

Carlos Mayans, a former Republican legislator and Wichita mayor once seen by almost everyone as a conservative stalwart, said he’s seen and felt the change over the past two years.

“Not too long ago, I was called a Democrat by one of those superconservatives,” Mayans said, laughing. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

He said what got him branded a Democrat was questioning the method used to select Republican Party leaders, who were nominated by a closed-door committee and presented to the rank and file as a slate of candidates.

Since he’s been out of office, Mayans said he’s seen a new brand of uncompromising conservative ideology politics gain sway.

“Some of these people are not interested in any ideas but their ideas, and only people in their group are good people and everybody else is bad,” he said. “The interesting thing is the people who are playing the litmus tests have never done anything themselves … these people don’t have the political skills and experience, but a lot of ideology. People are mean to each other, and I don’t like it.”

Joe Aistrup, a professor of political science at Kansas State University, said he’s noticed a definite shift to the right in state politics.

“The line has moved,” he said. “The new version of conservatism that developed in the ’90s was once just held by a fraction of Republicans.” Now, those views are held by a much larger proportion of the electorate, he said.

“We’re about to find out how big a proportion,” he added. He sees the 2012 election cycle as a key pivot point. Ideological conservatives have targeted Republican state senators in an effort to add that chamber to the conservative-dominated House and governorship.

So what is conservative in Kansas 2012? Aistrup said there are several litmus tests.

Among them:

• A strong belief in free markets and minimal regulation of business activity.

• Favoring large cuts in government spending.

• Strong support for lowering or eliminating taxes, especially income taxes.

• A strong “pro-life” position extending beyond traditional opposition to abortion.

“If you can check all those boxes, that particular candidate fits into that new category of conservative,” Aistrup said.

Two years ago, Aistrup and fellow political scientist Ed Flentje of Wichita State University co-wrote a book, “Kansas Politics and Government: The Clash of Political Cultures,” and coined the term “Polar Alliance” to describe the new-style conservatism. The term reflects what they see as a kind of an inherent contradiction in the ideology that opposes government sometimes and promotes it other times.

“At one level, it’s all about less government, less government intervention, especially in business issues,” Aistrup said. “On the other hand, when it comes to social issues, it’s all about extending government power.”

What were once considered strong conservative positions on a variety of issues aren’t anymore.

For example, on abortion, it was once considered conservative to vote for legislation regulating late-term procedures and to speak in favor of overturning of the Roe v. Wade court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

In the past couple of years, the pro-life conservative line has moved right as the Legislature put strict controls on abortions past 20 weeks of pregnancy, barred private companies from offering insurance that covers abortions to employees, and enacted tough regulations to discourage the use of abortion-inducing medications.

Now, the pro-life issue has branched into related matters such as stem-cell research and whether insurance plans should cover contraception, Aistrup said.

Evolution, not revolution State House Speaker Mike O’Neal, who will retire this winter after 28 years in the Legislature, said the move to the right has been more a matter of evolution than revolution.

He said he started out in 1985 as a social conservative and economic moderate, which reflected his Hutchinson-based district.

“I have literally watched myself and my supporters, as we have gotten older, become more and more conservative,” O’Neal said. “It has been a process over time, culminating with the election of the first truly conservative governor (Sam Brownback) in a very long time.

“I’m not a big fan of labels,” O’Neal said. “But it’s kind of like an NBA game where you want to see the players’ names and numbers so you can tell who’s who even though they’re on the same team.”

O’Neal said the ultra conservatives have always been here. Now, “they’re getting more attention because they’ve been successful and are now leading."

O’Neal said he welcomes the views they represent.

“I think it’s healthy that government gets challenged, from the right and the left," he said. “The essence of politics is we have a free, democratic system where challengers are not only welcome, but encouraged."

With the traditional political labels coming unglued, O’Neal advised that voters research candidates’ public policy statements and voting records themselves, and make up their own mind who’s conservative and who’s not.

More than one group The Rev. Terry Fox, the conservative pastor of the Summit Church and co-host of a conservative talk radio show in Wichita, said he thinks President Obama has awakened Kansas conservatives and inspired them to take a more active role.

“I think part of it is Obama’s agenda really shook people up,” he said. Kansas’ increasing conservatism is “a local reaction to a national agenda.”

Fox said there are actually more splits than the traditional moderate-conservative meme.

The conservatives come in three separate but sometimes overlapping groups.

• Social conservatives, motivated by issues such as abortion, gay marriage and, in the past, opposition to gambling.

• Fiscal conservatives, driven by tax policy, regulatory reform and government spending issues.

• Non-active Republicans, who are often lumped with independents. They’re philosophically against big government but only become active in conservative politics when they’re aroused by some issue.

And he thinks an Obama victory in November would cement the nation as a liberal country, rather than center-right.

Along with fellow pastor and broadcast partner Joe Wright, Fox spent years at the forefront of abortion politics and led the successful campaign for a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage.

His current issue is fighting against Agenda 21, a United Nations guideline for sustainable development that many conservatives believe will compromise individuals’ property rights if it’s implemented.

But even with his record, Fox said he sometimes gets callers on his radio show who think he’s not conservative enough. Fox refers to them as the “survivalists” who are almost completely anti-government.

“You can’t have a civilization the way some people want it,” he said.

Brownback’s impact The shift to the right isn’t just theoretical.

Brownback’s two legislative sessions have brought significant changes – all in the conservative direction — in the way the state does business.

The biggest is probably taxation. After the House outmaneuvered the Senate in this year’s session, Brownback signed into law a bill making deep income tax cuts and eliminating the tax on nonwage income for farms, sole proprietorships, limited liability companies and corporations organized under Subchapter S of the federal tax code.

Budget analysts forecast the cuts will lead to big budget deficits and deep cuts in education and other services.

The governor and his supporters, prominently including O’Neal, believe that the tax cuts will lead to an explosion of commerce that will cover the cost — a theory propounded by former Reagan economic adviser Arthur Laffer, who helped the state develop the plan.

Brownback also backed and signed several bills restricting abortion access, and he’s implementing a sweeping privatization of the state Medicaid system that provides health care for the poor.

But in becoming more conservative, the system is also becoming more rigid, some political observers say.

Ken Ciboski, a professor of political science at WSU who is active in Republican politics, said the new style of conservatism doesn’t lend itself well to the give-and-take necessary to accomplish things in our legislative system.

For many of the newly energized conservatives, “any kind of compromise today is a dirty word … this is viewed by those people as selling out,” Ciboski said. “Rigidity has set in, and we don’t have the kind of system that is geared for that.

“I never thought democracy was about having to agree to everything and if you don’t like that, just shove it,” he said.

National movement O’Neal said he sometimes had to rein in some of the more firebrand conservatives in his caucus who had vowed to “stay till Christmas” fighting for bigger budget cuts.

He said he had to convince them they couldn’t do that because the Legislature has a constitutional duty to pass the budget by the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

But nobody could persuade legislators to come to terms on another constitutional responsibility: the once-every-10-years task of redrawing legislative districts.

When the Legislature failed to pass new district maps, the task fell to judges who scrambled the electoral landscape with little regard for politics. The judges pitted incumbents against incumbents in some districts and left other districts with no incumbents at all.

That’s brought numerous challengers into the Aug. 7 Republican primary election, almost all of whom claim to have more iron-clad conservative credentials than their opponents.

Mel Kahn, a professor of political science at WSU who is active in Democratic politics, said it’s not just a Kansas thing. In several other states, longtime conservative Republicans have been ousted from office when challenged from the right, he said.

In 2010, for example, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, was bounced from office when he finished third in a primary behind two candidates backed by national conservative anti-tax “tea party” groups. This year, Dick Lugar, R-Indiana, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, fell to a tea party challenger.

Both senators were targeted after they voted for economic stimulus programs and bank bailouts during the recession.

Ciboski said even a conservative icon like former senator and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole would have a hard time getting elected in the current environment.

“He was a negotiator,” he said. “That’s what Bob Dole was all about.”

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