This year confronts Kansas Democrats with something new: a primary challenge in the governor’s race. Former Governors John Carlin and Kathleen Sebelius are split—Carlin backs former State Representative Josh Svaty while Sebelius prefers State Senator Laura Kelly. House Minority Leader Jim Ward and former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer are also credible candidates. What to do?
My suggestion: just nominate good candidates, then let the nature of the times and the will of the voters do the rest.
One thing Democrats do not need to do is get all wrapped up in the idea called strategic voting—the idea that each candidate must be vetted for his or her electability versus the others. In fact, all of the Democrats are probably equally likely to beat the Republican nominee. The rest depends on circumstances like the state of the state’s economy, the popularity or unpopularity of President Trump and Governor Colyer, Greg Orman’s third-party, wild card candidacy, and which candidate wins the Republican nomination. Democrats have no control over any of these things.
By contrast, Democrats over 40 reflexively recite the names McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis as an admonition to practice strategic voting. Yet those three landslide presidential defeats of the 1970s and 1980s are over-analyzed. 1972, 1984, and 1988 were all good years for incumbent presidents. Any Democrat would have lost. It was not an issue-based choice — in ’84, for example, polls showed voters closer to Mondale than to Reagan on many key issues. It was Reagan’s image, and his incumbency, that led to his landslide. Meanwhile, Democrats usually retained their large majorities in Congress and most state legislatures back then. They can only dream of having such numbers today.
Today’s younger Democrats are wise not to put too much stock in so-called electability. They have never heard of McGovern, Mondale, or Dukakis, and they distrust candidates who promise to win by moving to the center. In both parties, authenticity, not centrism, are today’s watchwords.
Most Americans do not see the political world as liberal or conservative. For example, Trump supporters hold surprisingly liberal views on a host of issues, including Social Security and Medicare—two of the largest items in the federal budget. They also want government to protect the jobs of at-risk workers: another liberal priority. It is cultural issues where Trump supporters leave their outspoken, conservative mark.Using the word “liberal” as a battering ram against others is mainly a Republican strategy to rally their base. As such, whoever wins the Republican nomination will call any Democrat “liberal” at every opportunity, because the words “liberal” and “conservative” are mostly cultural markers, not issue positions. As such, they play particularly well with the Republican base. They will throw this “liberal” label at Independent Greg Orman. It has little to do with policy.
All four Democrats would support public education and social services far more than either GOP front-runner, Kris Kobach or Gov. Colyer. Identifying himself as anti-abortion, Svaty fills a special niche — not electability, but rather a candidate for those who agree with the Democrats on most social and economic issues but oppose most legal abortions. This group could potentially be quite large. For example, it would include many devout Catholics with views similar to those of Pope Francis. Social-justice evangelicals may join, too. It is good for this group to have representation, but when it comes to electability, the key is for all Democrats to unite behind their eventual nominee. The most electable candidate is a good, well-qualified one who works hard, has the party’s full support, and relates well to voters. Beyond that, it is largely up to the nature of the times—and the voters themselves.
Michael A. Smith is professor of Political Science at Emporia State University.