In deep-red Kansas, state Democrats threw their most energized annual meeting in years in Topeka on Saturday, largely thanks to the featured speaker: Vermont senator and former presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Sanders quickly sold out a hotel ballroom, so organizers moved his speech to historic Topeka High School as part of their annual Washington Days convention. Sanders struck a nerve with the thousands of Kansas Democrats watching when he spoke directly to what he said were Republican politicians actively making it harder to vote by passing laws that require identification at the polls and tightening voter rolls.
“That is cowardly,” Sanders said. “If you don’t have the guts and the ability to compete in open, fair and honest elections; if you don’t have the guts to defend your ideas; and if you think the only way you can win an election is by suppressing the vote, get out of politics and get another job.”
Along with North Carolina, Kansas is in the spotlight in what has become a national political fight over voting rights, thanks in large part to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach is the only secretary of state in the country who is authorized to prosecute voter fraud and has cited non-citizen voting to support his push for laws that require Kansans to produce U.S. citizenship documents like passports and birth certificates to register. So far, however, the cases his office has taken on have been against lawful citizens who Kobach said illegally voted in multiple states.
Sanders also called Kansas “ground zero for trickle-down economics,” thanks to tax policies spearheaded by Gov. Sam Brownback, and acknowledged that a lot of Democrats are nervous and apprehensive after years of losses. But he urged them, basically, to get over it.
“Nobody has the right to throw their hands up and say, ‘I quit. I’m not going to be involved in the struggle,’” Sanders told the crowd. “Despair is not an option!”
Though still vastly outnumbered in Topeka where every one of the statewide elected officials is a Republican, the Kansas Democratic Party is coming off wins in 2016, picking up 12 seats in the Kansas House and one in the state Senate. It faces an uphill battle in the special election in the state’s 4th District to replace Rep. Mike Pompeo, who was picked by President Donald Trump to head the CIA. The district, which includes Wichita, hasn’t sent a Democrat to congress for two decades and Trump carried it by more than 20 percent.
James Thompson, a civil rights attorney in Wichita who is the Democrat’s pick to run for the seat, says Sanders inspired him to run. The special election on April 11 will be the first congressional election since Trump took office. Thompson says that presents an opening.
“We have a huge opportunity: One, to put the district blue; two, to have a referendum on Trump’s policies and Brownback’s policies,” Thompson says.
Of course, Thompson is not running against Trump or Brownback, but Kansas state Treasurer Ron Estes. Estes is expected to raise a lot of money and to draw dedicated support from well-organized opponents of abortion rights.
Frank Morris is a national correspondent and senior editor at KCUR 89.3. You can reach him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.