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New Kansas GOP Chairman Promises Unity But Not Moderation

Stephen Koranda
Kansas News Service
Overland Park attorney Mike Kuckelman became chair of the Kansas Republican Party without opposition at the state convention Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019.

The new chairman of the Kansas Republican Party is focused on winning back the governorship and the 3rd Congressional District. He told party leaders this weekend how he plans to do it.

Johnson County attorney Mike Kuckelman was the only one to present a full slate of leadership candidates for party officials to consider at their state convention Saturday.

Virginia Crossland-Macha is the party’s new vice chair. She’s currently a member of the Kansas State Fair Board with connections to the construction industry.

Emily Wellman will serve as party secretary and Bob Dool, who was treasurer for Kris Kobach’s gubernatorial campaign, will now be treasurer of the party.

Kuckelman told the GOP activists gathered for the convention that the party needs to improve its fundraising and engage unaffiliated voters in order to boost turnout and rebound from some stinging recent losses.

He urged the crowd to be prepared to pay for outreach to gather more votes.

“I will be asking for money. It’s just that important,” Kuckelman said. “We need the money to get this done.”

He joked that some Republicans might start hiding their wallets when they see him coming.

The Kansas GOP’s new leader takes over not long after Republicans saw their streak of congressional and statewide wins broken in 2018.

While Republicans held all other statewide offices and congressional seats, Democrat Sharice Davids unseated four-term 3rd District Rep. Kevin Yoder in the Kansas City area. And Democrat Laura Kelly beat the polarizing former Secretary of State Kris Kobach by a five-point margin in the governor’s race as she drew some Republican and unaffiliated voters.

Well over 500,000 Kansas voters are unaffiliated – nearly a third of the total registered.

“They don’t know who to vote for,” Kuckelman said Saturday. “They don’t understand why they should be a part of the Republican Party.”

Along with engaging unaffiliated voters, Kuckelman said Latinos could also be key to reinvigorating the Kansas GOP.

Latinos make up about 6 percent of the state’s eligible voting population.

Kuckelman said in an interview that immigration rhetoric from President Donald Trump and others makes them harder to reach.

“If you look at the Republican platform, we’re strongly in favor of immigration,” he said. “What the Republicans are opposed to, everyone I assume is opposed to, is people who violate the law.”

The state party platform calls “legal immigration … a blessing to this country,” but emphasizes border security, opposes sanctuary policies, and asserts that employers should have the right to fire workers who are not competent in English. 

Kuckelman has represented Republicans in a number of high-profile legal fights.

Currently, he is representing the Kansas Senate’s majority leader in a defamation lawsuit against the Kansas City Star. He’s also defended a Republican House member charged with lying about his residency during the 2018 campaign. Kuckelman has called that charge “politically motivated.”

In 2014, Kuckelman also helped U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts successfully fend off a complaint that he didn’t really live in Kansas to stay on the ballot.

Outgoing Kansas GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold decided not to run for reelection after six years in the post.

Kelly led the party through that contentious 2014 campaign when Roberts and then-Gov. Sam Brownback faced tough challenges but both ultimately won reelection.

But in 2016, conservatives lost some of their grip on the Kansas Legislature, with more moderate Republicans and Democrats winning dozens of seats – enough to form a coalition majority to reverse Brownback’s signature tax cuts and pass school funding increases conservatives had long fought.

Conservatives regained some ground in 2018 and Republicans maintained their dominance in the Legislature, but after the fall elections several moderate lawmakers defected to the Democratic Party.

Kuckelman is promising to build more unity in the Kansas GOP.

To conservative John Hoffman, from Maple Hill, building unity doesn’t mean putting together a more moderate party platform.

He said members of the Republican Party should support the platform. If they can’t, they should consider whether the GOP is the right fit.

“They get to the point where they can’t agree … they leave. That seems to be a logical result,” he said.

The contentious gubernatorial primary between Kobach and then-Gov. Jeff Colyer – two conservatives with very different styles – also left divisions. Hoffman is typical of party members who want to see more unity.

“There was not very much party unity coming out of the primaries,” he said. “I’m hoping that we can get a little more organized.”

Despite his calls for outreach, Kuckelman doesn’t expect to moderate the party’s platform.

“Republicans in Kansas are always conservative,” he said. “I think it will continue to be a conservative party.”

Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

As the Kansas News Service news editor, I help our statewide team of reporters find the important issues and breaking news that impact people statewide. We refine our daily stories to illustrate the issues and events that affect the health, well-being and economic stability of the people of Kansas. Email me at skoranda@kcur.org.
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