Kansas’ Unexpected Progressivism

Kansas undermines the notion that some parts of the country are beyond the progressive movement’s organizing reach.

The 2006 mid-term elections brought about a series of surprise progressive victories in Kansas. Just two years ago an overwhelming 62 percent of Kansans voted for Bush— propelled to the polls by strongly conservative national security and anti-abortion politics. And Kansas is often spotlighted for harboring the most extreme version of heartland conservatism.

Yet, while political observers noted Kansas’ seemingly growing conservatism, most ignored the diligent work of progressive activists working to build a message and infrastructure of their own. Visits from national leaders to the state so often ignored by progressive leadership and a reinvigorated political base committed to creating an alternative vision for the state’s political future became keys to changing the state’s political tide.

And change Kansas did. Kansas, after all, elected a Board of Education that banned teaching evolution in schools and an Attorney General that confiscated women’s medical records; produced the vehemently anti-gay, funeral protesting, Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps; was the place Timothy McVeigh called home; and hosted Operation Save America, an anti-abortion group linked to violence perpetrated against reproductive health clinics—all in the past 15 years.

The most conservative elements in Kansas thrived because they had a well-organized and invested political base, not because most Kansans subscribed to their fringe politics. The Kansas progressive movement on the other hand was largely the ignored child of the national movement, written off as beyond the reach of strategizing and organizing.

Unexpected victories in the midterm election were largely made possible through strategic work by progressive activists over the years combined with a political base reinvigorated by messages of increased funding for education, raising the minimum wage, and improved health care for all Kansans. Several conservative legislative incumbents were defeated in the election, and progressive Governor Sebelius was re-elected, but two campaigns made a particularly important impact on policy and politics in the state: the defeat of Attorney General Phill Kline, and the unlikely election of Congresswoman Nancy Boyda.

Former Attorney General Phill Kline repeatedly made national headlines by trying to access adolescent girls’ and women’s medical records from reproductive healthcare clinics. He continued to fan the flames throughout the election cycle, appearing on Fox News’ the “O’Reily Factor” just days before the election to support O’Reily’s assertion that reproductive healthcare providers are akin to executioners. In a state that has passed some of the strictest anti-abortion legislation, Kline’s defeat sent a signal that voters will not tolerate those who use their positions of authority to advance a clearly ideological agenda. Paul Morrison, Kline’s successor, has promised to try to undo some of the damage done to patients’ privacy rights.

A much more unlikely victory went to newly elected Congresswoman Nancy Boyda who defeated five-term conservative congressman Jim Ryun of the 2nd District. She campaigned using old-school methods on a platform against ideological conservatism and big money in politics, and for reforming healthcare access, renewable energy, Iraq, and the federal deficit. Boyda made newspaper inserts on $99 computer software, broadcast low-budget radio ads, and relied on word of mouth. She ran a small-donation based grassroots campaign, galvanizing voters to reject Ryun’s religious ideology while contributing to building a progressive infrastructure.

The recent election in Kansas undermines the notion that some parts of the country—particularly the Midwestern heartland and the South—are beyond the progressive movement’s organizing reach. Only time will tell what the new changes mean for the state in the long-term, but it is clear that the recent election suggests no part of the country should be written off the political map.

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