Republicans in Kansas say Josh Svaty is the Democrat they most fear in a general election for governor next year. But because of Planned Parenthood, his candidacy could be doomed.
He’s an “extremist,” the group says of the charismatic, 37-year-old farmer from Ellsworth, Kansas with an anti-abortion voting record. Laura McQuade, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, has vowed to stop Svaty “from gaining even the slightest political foothold in Kansas.”
Svaty’s predicament is a case study of the dilemma facing Democrats: Should the party make issues such as abortion a litmus test for candidates, even if insisting on ideological purity could cost it at the polls?
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez waded into the heated debate earlier this year when he said all Democratic candidates must support a woman’s right to make choices about her own health.
“That is not negotiable,” Perez told the Huffington Post. The DNC later said it doesn’t believe in litmus tests. Anti-abortion Democrats say the damage was done.
Svaty warns the party risks losing voters in rural communities if it applies a one-size-fits-all approach on social issues.
“It is important to have healthy diversity of opinions,” he told the Kansas City Star in an interview. “A Democrat in Baileyville, Kansas is not the same as a Democrat in Brooklyn, New York. They just aren’t … the worlds from which they come are wildly different.”
A Litmus test
The Democratic Party’s conflicted attitude toward anti-abortion candidates sparked controversy in April when 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders campaigned with Heath Mello, a Democrat running for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska, who had an anti-abortion voting record in the state legislature.
Faced with a backlash from abortion rights groups and activists, Sanders defended his support of Mello to National Public Radio. “I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue,” he said.
That’s when Perez jumped into the fray with his statement about abortion being “not negotiable” for Democratic candidates.
Mello ended up losing by 6 percentage points.
Last week Perez met with anti-abortion Democratic leaders who asked him to take specific steps to include them in the party. Doing so, they told him, could help the party win again, said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats For Life of America.
Day cited a Pew study in March 2016 that shows 28 percent of people who identify as Democrats believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Prominent anti-abortion Democrats include Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, and Rep. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania.
“Telling one-third of Democrats that their support for life in the womb is inconsistent with Democratic values will not help rebuild our numbers,” Day said.
Xochitl Hinojosa, DNC spokeswoman, told McClatchy on Friday that Perez is committed to listening to all Democrats as they rebuild the party.
But, Hinojosa added, “Our party platform makes clear that Democrats trust women to make their own choices about their body and their health, and Tom stands by this.”
That stance could hamper Democrats’ efforts to expand their base of support. Leaderless and locked out of the White House, the party’s biggest challenge now is to bring in more voters, said Will Marshall, president and founder of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic-leaning group.
To do so, Democrats must recruit and back candidates who are well matched to the political terrain they’re competing on, Marshall said.
“The politics of special-interest litmus test doesn’t work very well here,” he said. “We’re talking about Kansas, a state that has been deeply red, and where Democrats need to make cross cutting appeals to voters. By definition, we can’t just rely on a strategy of energizing a base that isn’t big enough to produce a majority.”
Tom Witt, a Wichita activist who chairs the Kansas party’s progressive caucus, disputed the notion that an anti-abortion Democrat stands a better chance in Kansas.
As Witt points out, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius, who was a strong supporter of abortion rights, won two terms as governor during the 2000s.
An anti-abortion Democrat is less likely to excite the party’s base — and will struggle to raise money, he said.
Wichita specifically and Kansas in general has been ground zero for the national abortion debate for decades, and as a result, abortion rights are the key issue that gets many Kansas Democrats to the polls, Witt said.
“You can’t tell these people to just give it up and have it not be an issue anymore because they’re going to tell you, ‘Hell no,’” he said.
A Democratic primary
Kansas Democrats are headed for their first gubernatorial primary since 1998. Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, who would be the state’s first black governor, declared his candidacy in February. Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and outspoken progressive, also has hinted at a run. Both men support abortion rights.
Svaty is more than two decades younger than the other candidates.
He was elected to the Kansas House at age 22. He spent seven years in the legislature, then served as secretary of agriculture under Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson.
He’s married with three kids and one on the way.
In May, Svaty stood with his family in a stiff wind front of a grain elevator in the tiny town of Black Wolf, in a blue button-down shirt and jeans, to announce his decision to run to replace Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican whose time in office expires next year.
Democrats are optimistic about their chances of retaking the governorship thanks to the unpopularity of Brownback’s signature tax cuts, which blew a hole in the state’s budget and made Brownback one of the most unpopular governors in the country.
Svaty’s rural roots will play a big part in his campaign strategy. His family has farmed in Kansas for 150 years and he has relatives in 34 counties across the state. He promises he won’t ignore the rural communities where Democratic candidates typically don’t bother campaigning.
Republicans are watching Svaty warily.
“I think Svaty right now is probably the one we’d see as the biggest challenge,” said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. “He’s young, he’s dynamic … he’d pull from areas Democrats don’t always pull from.”
Barker sees Svaty’s anti-abortion record working to the Democrat’s advantage in a general election.
Kansas is a state sympathetic to anti-abortion interests, Barker said, so if you compare two Democrats who are identical except for their stances on abortion, the anti-abortion candidate would pose a bigger challenge for Republicans.
“They’re a political power in Kansas,” Barker said of anti-abortion activists. “And I don’t think there’s an equivalent pro-choice power.”
A fundamental right
If the Democratic Party compromises on reproductive rights, it risks alienating its base just as it’s getting energized, said Planned Parenthood’s McQuade.
Even deep in the Midwest, Planned Parenthood Great Plains has racked up more than 7,000 new donors since November 9, the day after Trump’s election, she said. In Kansas alone, the number of volunteers has tripled during the same time frame, to 44,000.
“You’ve got a massive base of supporters who believe this is fundamentally their right,” McQuade said.
McQuade said her strongly worded statement on Svaty reflected Planned Parenthood’s real alarm about his record.
“Elements in the Democratic Party are thinking this might be OK and this might be a way to broaden their tent ... We wanted to make a clear statement that we believe it would be a fundamental mistake for anyone in this race, for other candidates thinking of running, for voters in the state of Kansas, to think this is OK,” McQuade said. “It’s not.”
McQuade saw no difference between Svaty and conservative gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach on reproductive rights.
“This is a guy who voted in favor of personhood, that life begins at the moment of conception,” she said of Svaty.
Svaty also voted for a House bill that allowed a woman’s family member or partner to sue a doctor or support staff at a health center to prevent a woman from having an abortion.
In all, Svaty took 11 anti-abortion votes during his time in the Kansas legislature, and voted to overcome the Democratic governor’s veto twice, McQuade said.
“This goes right to the heart of women’s autonomy and their ability to make their own informed decisions,” said McQuade.
Svaty defends his record as reflective of the values of his rural House district.
As governor, he says, his policies would have to reflect the values of all Kansans.
Most Kansans, he says, are more concerned with the state’s financial woes and the fight over education spending than they are about abortion.
“We can talk about this issue if we like to, but spending time and energy on it means that we are not talking about the issues that are threatening the long-term stability of our state,” he said.
“I think most Kansans would prefer to move past it.”