Here on the plain, anchored in the wash of neon red on the U.S. electoral map, some Kansans feel insulated and others feel isolated from the outcome of the 2012 general election, which returned a Democrat to the White House and failed to give Republicans control of the U.S. Senate.
As is so often the case these days, perceptions of political reality are skewed by ideological denial or wishful thinking, and whether we feel insulated or isolated from the political sentiment that registered on Nov. 6 depends on whether our candidate won or lost.
In truth, neither perspective serves the state’s best interests. By imagining ourselves as beyond the reach of national trends, Kansans of all stripes forfeit the opportunity to participate in the political conversation that is shaping policy at the national level and in states across the country.
The state’s political parties are no help. Kansas Democrats lack the vision and voice to capitalize on widespread concern about Gov. Sam Brownback’s extreme policies on tax cuts and the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans, for their part, want to double down. Indeed, David Kensinger, Brownback’s adviser, told a cheering crowd at the conservative Pachyderm Club in Wichita last week that the national GOP should follow the example of the Kansas party to win elections.
Any hope that Kansas Republicans might have sensed a change in the national mood after Nov. 6 further dissipated when Brownback nixed the insurance commissioner’s plan to enter into a federal-state partnership for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
As a result, the federal government will be running our insurance exchange, and the state’s insurance regulator will have limited control over the sale of mandated health insurance to Kansas consumers.
Three other election outcomes also suggest that Kansas is on the sidelines of national trends. First, during this election cycle, the issue of abortion rights came to the fore, largely the result of uncompromising positions articulated by Republican candidates in Missouri and Indiana who believe that in cases of rape, abortion should be outlawed. Suddenly, national outrage was focused on a position that is accommodated by the Kansas GOP platform.
Similarly, the GOP platform is at odds with apparent momentum in favor of marriage equality. Since 1998 voters in 30 states, including Kansas, have erected barriers to same-sex marriage. But on Nov. 6, even as voters in Salina and Hutchinson hewed to this pattern by rejecting calls to add sexual orientation to those cities’ antidiscrimination policies, voters elsewhere might have turned the tide.
Specifically, Maine, Maryland and Washington legalized same-sex marriage at the ballot box ,and voters in Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
A final issue that sets us apart is the move by voters in two states to decriminalize recreational marijuana. That one of those states, Colorado, shares a border with Kansas makes this a particularly salient issue for us. It’s unlikely, however, that Kansas’ political leaders will have the foresight to exploit the revenue opportunity that is staring them in the face, even as other states are sure to follow in taxing legal marijuana sales.
Instead, we’ll be the state whose lawmen patrol I-70 looking to arrest eastbound travelers transporting small quantities of marijuana across our border, on the way home from ski vacations. News reports indicate that sheriffs’ departments on the western front intend to be vigilant.
Lost on many Kansans will be the parallel between that posture and the liquor-by-the-drink crackdowns of the 1970s, when Attorney General Vern Miller sought to have flight attendants confiscate cocktails once an airliner entered Kansas air space. We were the butt of a national joke then, and we might well be again.
But these are just a handful of examples. As Kansans reflect on the recent election, it’s in our best interests to consider possibilities that seem counterintuitive within the Kansas frame of reference. What the Nov. 6 election told us is that we are not in the American mainstream and that opportunities to influence the political and policy conversations are passing us by.
Gwyn Mellinger is a professor and chair of the mass media department at Baker University and a member of the “Insight Kansas” writing group.