Kansas continues to fascinate

In the Kansas Republican primary Tuesday, two members of the House faced challenges from the center while Sen. Pat Roberts faced a challenge from the right. All survived. Now, it's the governor's turn to worry.

John Hanna/AP
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks to Republican Party activists during a rally, Wednesday at the state GOP headquarters in Topeka, Kan. Sen. Pat Roberts is beside him.

In 2004, Thomas Frank wrote “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” a fascinating if tilted view of the political dynamics of a state that takes its politics very, very seriously.

Kansas is an overwhelmingly agricultural state. It also has a vibrant (or once vibrant) aviation industry and a wind energy sector.

It is also a pretty rural state, sitting smack in the middle of the country.

Kansas has always had a pretty volatile political history, stretching back to when it first entered the union. This is what the History Channel’s website said about that entry:

Trouble in territorial Kansas began with the signing of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act by President Franklin Pierce. The act stipulated that settlers in the newly created territories of Nebraska and Kansas would decide by popular vote whether their territory would be free or slave. In early 1855, Kansas’ first election proved a violent affair, as more than 5,000 so-called Border Ruffians invaded the territory from western Missouri and forced the election of a pro-slavery legislature. To prevent further bloodshed, Andrew H. Reeder, appointed territorial governor by President Pierce, reluctantly approved the election. A few months later, the Kansas Free State forces were formed, armed by supporters in the North and featuring the leadership of militant abolitionist John Brown.

And from that point forward, the politics of Kansas became pretty contentious.

Mr. Frank’s thesis was that overwhelming social conservatism of everyday Kansans today has distracted them from the economic populist issues that should drive them to the Democrats.

It’s an interesting thesis, but I think it needs to be updated, because what is happening to the Republican Party in Kansas is fascinating.

Pat Roberts, the venerable and conservative senior senator, faced down a challenge from an obviously unqualified Milton Wolf. Dr. Wolf’s chief claim to fame was being Barack Obama’s distant cousin.

But Roberts wasn’t the only one to face a challenge. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, the conservative who voted against John Boehner for speaker, barely squeaked by his primary challenge, mostly because he voted consistently against the state’s farm interests.

Rep. Mike Pompeo faced a heated primary challenge from his predecessor, Todd Tiahrt.

Both Reps. Pompeo and Huelskamp ran on an economic populist platform that eschews all federal help, even help from programs that help Kansas businesses.

As a former chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Roberts was put in the uncomfortable position of having to defend his record of helping his state’s farm interests against attacks from the populist Wolf.

He succeeded, but it was closer than many thought it would be.

The problem for the conservative movement in Kansas comes at the top of the ticket. Gov. Sam Brownback has been perhaps the most conservative governor in the history of the state of Kansas. But he is facing a challenging battle for reelection because his policies haven’t worked like he or his constituents thought they would.

The irony is that neither Roberts, Huelskamp nor Pompeo face any general election issues, while Governor Brownback, who had no primary opponent, might lose.

Kansas continues to fascinate.

John Feehery publishes his Feehery Theory blog at

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