August 7, 2012, by Alex Smith
On Kansas, candidates and Creationism: the struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party in America’s Heartland
With a US general election due in November, media attention will be largely focused on whether Barack Obama will succeed in his bid to defeat the Republican Mitt Romney and win a second term in the White House.
However, the Presidential vote is only one piece in a complicated electoral jigsaw puzzle, which will also include ballots for Congress and seats in the US Senate. In addition, thousands of state legislators and other offices are up for election. If the Republican primary taking place today (7 August) in Kansas is any indication, many of these races will be fought with as much bitterness, energy and intensity as the national struggle for the Presidency itself.
A divided politics
Kansas provides a microcosm for the struggle that is consuming grassroots Republicans for the heart and soul of their party in the Midwestern United States – America’s heartland.
Kansas is a ‘Red’ Republican State with a population of some three million people currently led by one of America’s most conservative governors, Sam Brownback. A former US Senator, Brownback is a national leader of the Christian Right who has been outspoken on all the so-called ‘hot button’ social issues, including abortion, embryonic stem cell research and the teaching of Intelligent Design (Creationism) in the high school science curriculum.
In the Kansas House of Representatives, a large conservative Republican majority has supported his far-Right agenda of radical tax cuts and hostility to Federal Government programs, particularly the Affordable Care Act (also known as ‘Obamacare’) and other areas of health and social policy.
However, there have been long-standing divisions between the conservative and moderate wings of the Kansas Republican Party, the latter of which holds leadership positions in the state senate. These divisions were largely forged in the 1990s during the major anti-abortion mobilizations targeting family planning services provided by abortion doctors like George Tiller, who was murdered by a pro-life militant in 2009.
For over a decade, conservatives and moderates fought for control of the Kansas Republican Party. Since the early 2000s, however, moderates have been in retreat. This has been thanks to a series of Right-wing insurgencies backed by powerful interests and political action committees (or ‘PACs’), including Americans for Prosperity – which is funded by the billionaire Koch brothers in Wichita – Kansans for Life, the National Rifle Association and, more recently, the Tea Party.
Following Brownback’s gubernatorial election in 2010, moderates held on to the state senate, where they have been organizing, informally, with the Democrats to obstruct both the Governor’s supporters in the state legislature and the (sizeable) conservative GOP minority in their own ranks over the last two years.
All of this has set the scene for the most divisive Republican primary elections seen in Kansas for many years (some would say, ever). When the last legislative session concluded acrimoniously over state budget negotiations, Brownback expressed his hope that the 2012 electoral cycle would produce one very important outcome: a more conservative senate willing to embrace his radical policies on economic issues and tax reform.
In response, Right-wing PACs have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of eight conservative challengers seeking to defeat moderates in their senate primaries. And for conservatives, the electoral arithmetic looks good: if the moderates lose just two of their number, they risk overall control of the state senate.
With stakes this high, those who believe they have much to lose under Brownback are rallying to moderates, the last real check on his power in Kansas.
On behalf of the more than 4000 teachers they represent, the Kansas branch of the National Education Association (KNEA) has donated generously to Republican moderates. There is no doubt that KNEA support significantly bolsters the prospects of moderates, who have been reinforced by the teachers’ union’s formidable networks of activist and communications support.
The moderates still have considerable fight left in them. To outflank the conservatives, attack mailers sent out in the last few days presented moderates as the ‘real’ Republicans standing up to President Obama. Meanwhile, radio ads aired over the weekend, but which are now no longer being played due to legal threats from Right-wing PACs, accused conservative Republican challengers of being less pro-life in their personal views and voting records than most moderates.
Retaliating, conservatives have accused moderates of being ‘RINOs’ (‘Republicans In Name Only’), in part for accepting funding from a trade union more commonly identified with their Democratic opposition. But other groups are also backing the moderates, including the gambling and liquor industries as well as realtors. All of these groups have an important stake in making sure that social conservatives are prevented from taking control of the state senate.
The spectre of Creationism
Latest estimates suggest that the amount of money conservatives and moderates will spend just on these eight senate races will likely exceed $2 million.
But while the senate primary is generating considerable interest, some other noteworthy contests are taking place too.
For example, a number of pro-science moderates on the Kansas State Board of Education (KSBOE) are retiring this year. Rumours are circulating that several of those seeking to replace them are really ‘stealth’ candidates who support the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in the classroom.
Maintaining good quality, well-funded public education together with robust science standards in the high school curriculum have traditionally been strong issues for moderates, especially after the State Board of Education held a series of controversial hearings on evolution in 2005.
But it seems likely that anti-science conservatives – while hardly being able to claim to speak for the conservative mainstream in Kansas – will feel emboldened by the progress that Brownback and his allies have made against the moderates.
If they lose their base in the state senate, Republican moderates, Democrats and trade unions like the KNEA fear that even more reactionary forces may be unleashed. That is why so many eyes will be so closely watching the Kansas primary races today.
Dr. Alex Smith is based at the University of Warwick and has just returned from month-long fieldwork on the Republican Party primary taking place today in Johnson County, Kansas, which forms part of the greater Kansas City metropolitan area. His research focuses on political debates over religion and science and forms part of the Leverhulme Trust funded ‘Making Science Public’ research programme.