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To win the U.S. Senate election, Kansas Democrats say they need to 'get more personal'

070922_Rev.Mark Holland campaigning in Wellington, Ks.IMG_1128.JPG
Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
Rev. Mark Holland, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, campaigns during a parade at hte Wellington, Kansas, Wheat Festival each summer.

While Republican Sen. Jerry Moran has the clear advantage in November's election, Democratic nominee Mark Holland says he's not giving up on rural Kansas — and plans to visit all 105 counties before Election Day.

It seemed all of Wellington, Kansas, had turned out on a sticky July night for the parade that kicked off the annual Kansas Wheat Festival, a 120-year-old tradition in this town of about 8,000 people just south of Wichita.

Older folks raised up out of their canvas chairs, joining parents with toddlers in strollers and on shoulders, packs of teens and military vets lining Main Street to stand with hands over their hearts as the National Anthem blared from loudspeakers.

Cheerleaders for the Wellington High Crusaders marched with big smiles and bigger orange bows in their hair. Tractors with wheels taller than the farmers who drove them rolled down the street.

There would be a full weekend of carnival rides, funnel cakes, a street dance and games.

“We have cow-patty bingo right after the parade,” said one young mother as her toddlers hustled to grab candy thrown to the curb by the Cub Scouts marching by. “You buy a square and if the cow poops on it you win something. It’s definitely a small-town thing.”

The celebration of the region’s agricultural heritage amplifies this community’s patriotism, faith, family.

But simmering below the surface of this Norman Rockwell moment of unity is a feeling that Sumner County, and the rest of the country, is changing. Recent events — the uncertain economy, ongoing mass shootings and the explosive Jan. 6 hearings — have some voters here trying to understand how a new political reality has shaped their day-to-day lives.

Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
The Wheat Festival parade brings people of all ages from Wellington and surrounding towns to the annual celebration of agriculture, family and the flag.

It’s increasingly rare for neighbors to confide in neighbors these days, or to feel comfortable criticizing the tone of last Sunday’s church sermon.

A new feeling of judgment has crept into the air. With opposing interpretations of the cataclysmic events of recent years, people in communities across the country are losing a sense of trust.

In the run up to the November elections, it is now the work of candidates like incumbent U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, seeking a third term, and his Democratic opponent, the Rev. Mark Holland — best known as the one-term mayor of one of the largest cities in the state, Kansas City, Kansas — to navigate this new landscape.

Rethinking their votes

Glennis Zimmerman, 72, a lifelong Republican from Sumner County, said she planned to vote as a Democrat this year. She’ll be breaking not only with her party but with her husband of 36 years.

“We’re a house divided,” she said. “The party just doesn’t represent my values anymore.”

This isn’t the Kansas Republican party Zimmerman grew up with. The party of Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum. Zimmerman said her party has become more intolerant, more extreme and judgmental.

“God is going to judge us,” she said. “No one else has the right to do that. I think we’ve lost our way as a country and I see things that, to me, look like Germany when Hitler took over.”

Wheat Festival weekend was a time for political candidates, for offices ranging from county commissioner to United States Senate, to make their pitches.

That afternoon, 50 people crowded into the Wellington Senior Center on Main Street for a campaign forum sponsored by the Sumner County Republicans and the Belle Plaine newspaper.

070922_SumnerCo RepublicanParty sponsored a candidate forum in Wellington, Ks.JPG
Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
The Sumner County Republican Club decided to include Democrats in its candidate forum, since more Democrats are running for state and local office this year than in a long time.

Waiting at the back of the room before his speech, Tim Hay, a soft-spoken Sumner County Emergency Medical Services and fire chief who’s about to retire, said he wanted to keep serving his community. He was running for county commissioner as a Democrat, like his father and grandfather before him.

Hay said he believes Kansans are pragmatic. A lot of his friends and neighbors register as Republicans just to make their votes count, but he said they think about issues the way he does. Better health insurance for everyone. Women’s rights.

Hay said many Republicans had told him they opposed the constitutional amendment on abortion, but he didn’t know how they voted.

He said people in his community steer clear of talking politics.

“A lot of things seem big at first, then kind of fade away as people get back to their daily lives,” he said before taking the podium.

But an official of the Sumner County Republican Party, who asked to remain anonymous, said he sees voters becoming more engaged, and more conservative.

“People are concerned about society,” he said. “There is a lot of violence, shortages of food and fuel, prices are going up rapidly. People are feeling very insecure. One newspaper article I read says 28% of people believe they may have to defend themselves with weapons.”

Wellington, Kansas, Wheat Festival Parade_ 071522_Ziegler
Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
A parade kicks off the Wellington, Kansas, Wheat Festival each summer. In addition to the weekend activities, it is also a traditional election season campaign stop for candidates courting the rural vote.

Robin Rivers was there as a surrogate for Republican Derek Schmidt, the Kansas Attorney General hoping to unseat Democratic incumbent Laura Kelly in the governor’s race.

Making clear she was speaking as a private citizen and not for Schmidt, Rivers said she was disappointed her senator, Moran, had voted to certify the 2022 presidential election for Joe Biden.

“There’s definitely another side to that story,” she said. “There was no transparency.”

But she said that’s “old news” now, and there were more pressing concerns.

“I’m upset about the way they (Jan. 6 participants) were treated,” she said. “I think everybody had a right to be in Washington, D.C. If you stick with the constitution, you realize the citizens should have the power.”

Convincing voters

As the Wheat Festival parade continued down Main Street, the setting sun cast a brilliant light across turn-of-the-century brick buildings and faded painted signs for the once thriving commerce here: Jacob Engle, Dry Goods, Jerry’s Café.

070922_DemocratMark Holland campaigning for US Sen. from Ks in Wellington, Ks..jpg
Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
Democrats have been unsuccessful in winning a U.S. Senate from Kansas for almost 100 years. But some voters are reconsidering their traditional party affiliation in light of extraordinary current events.

Holland and other candidates, mostly Republicans, followed vintage cars in the parade.

Handing out campaign fliers and yard signs, Holland heard a lot of “no thank you,” and “that’s OK.” When someone seemed interested, he stopped to make his pitch.

“What I’ve learned is we all want the same things,” he told a young couple with toddlers in tow. “Meaningful work. Opportunities for our kids, which is why we bring children to political events, right? Right now (Washington) D.C. is in a pointless culture war, a race to the bottom rather than working together to make our country the best it can be.”

The couple nodded and smiled as the candidate asked for their vote.

Moran was considered a moderate in the vein of Dole and Kassebaum when he was first elected to the Kansas Senate in 1989. He gained conservative bona fides, however, in the 2010 primary, when he faced 4th District U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahart.

The two battled over who was farther right as Republicans leaned into Tea Party, anti-Obama, anti-health-care-reform rhetoric.

In 2010, Moran won 70% of the vote against Democrat Lisa Johnston, a higher-education administrator and political newcomer from Overland Park.

Moran breezed to reelection in 2016, beating Democrat Patrick Wiesner of Lawrence, Kansas, by 10 points, which was larger than President Trump’s statewide margin of victory.

Since then, Moran has increasingly embraced the party’s right wing. He voted against an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection. He voted against bipartisan infrastructure and gun safety bills.

He supported the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and return the issue of abortion to the states.

“With this ruling, the American people will again have the opportunity to make their voices heard through their representatives and the legislative process,” Moran said in a statement.

Former Kansas City, Kansas, mayor Mark Holland, left, will face incumbent Sen. Jerry Moran in November.

But Moran has managed to walk a thin line and maintain a reputation for being independent. While he voted with Trump 80% of the time, constituents say he doesn’t come across as a MAGA evangelist, and he took fire for voting to certify the 2022 election of Joe Biden. 

Election watchers say Moran’s style works for Kansas voters. He flies under the radar. You rarely see him on the Sunday news shows.

He has a gift for retail politics, showing up for important community events, such as when the University of Kansas received recognition and resources from the federal government for its cancer research.

We can’t be in that polite space of years long gone by, of not talking politics. Everything is political. If we don’t, God help us. Our democracy is literally at stake.
Barbara Bollier

The last time Kansans sent a Democratic senator to Washington, D.C., was 1932, “before The Wizard of Oz hit the movie theaters,” quipped ABC’s Johnathon Karl in 2014.

Barbara Bollier, from Mission Hills, Kansas, understands that dynamic all too well. In a 2020 U.S. Senate campaign that looked surprisingly competitive, Bollier outraised her opponent Roger Marshall almost five to one.

Bollier was a Republican when she won a seat in the Kansas House in 2010, winning a seat in the Kansas Senate in 2016. But she switched parties in 2018 after she was removed from committee leadership positions for supporting Democrats.

She said at the time the party’s growing conservatism on issues such as health care, LGBTQ rights and public education no longer represented her values or those of her constituents.

Democrats had reason to be hopeful. Kelly had won the Kansas governor's race in 2018’s nationwide blue wave, beating conservative firebrand Kris Kobach by five points. That same year, in the 3rd Congressional District, Democratic newcomer Sharice Davids trounced Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder.

Davids was easily reelected in 2020 by a margin of 10 points, helped, no doubt, by a 41% increase shift from Republicans to Democrats in historically white, affluent Republican counties.

Ultimately, though, Bollier lost to Republican Roger Marshall by 11 points. She attributed her loss largely to record turnout by Donald Trump’s base.

071622_Wyandotte County Democrats Breakfast_Ziegler.JPG
Laura Ziegler
KCUR 89.3
The Wyandotte County Democrats monthly breakfast was well attended last month. Organizers say members seem more motivated to engage this year with a contentious constitutional amendment and more Democrats on state and local ballots.

Any Democratic victories this year, Bollier said, will hinge on what she called “the exhausted middle.” Not just moderate Democrats and Republicans, but the thousands of unaffiliated voters who in some Kansas counties outnumber Democrats.

With exasperation and urgency in her voice, Bollier said Democrats need to become more grassroots.

“You have to get more personal, it can’t be a postcard in the mail,” she said. “You have to talk about how the Republican extremist policies are taking away rights. We can’t be in that polite space of years long gone by, of not talking politics. Everything is political. If we don’t, God help us. Our democracy is literally at stake.”

Pockets of blue

Democrats know they have a steep uphill battle in Kansas. But many are feeling hopeful after Tuesday's surprising margin of victory over the constitutional amendment that would allow Kansas lawmakers to further restrict or ban abortions.

With participation from nearly half of registered voters, the proposed amendment was rejected by a margin of 59-41%.

On a Saturday morning in mid-July, Scott Mackey was leading a monthly breakfast for Democrats in Wyandotte County he started decades ago. The county has consistently voted with Democrats, but the demographics are shifting. One-fourth of voters in Wyandotte County are Republicans.

“I see a lot of motivation to get out and vote this year,” he said, “whereas voters on both sides might have not seen the need before.”

The growing urban and suburban counties may be the Democrats’ best hope. In the Kansas suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri, and outside of Wichita and Manhattan in Sedgwick and Riley counties respectively, the Democratic party is seeing registration grow. 

But Holland, the Methodist minister challenging Moran, says he will campaign in all 105 Kansas counties.

“What Democrats have done in the past is look at the numbers and say there’s no sense in even going to rural counties,” Holland said. “That’s inexcusable. A lot of the rural counties are very conservative, and we need to be willing to lose less badly. That doesn’t mean we don’t go there.”

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