I'm a clinical social worker who has moved about in the past. Previously I lived in Texas and California. I came to Kansas for a job. One of my first friends here was the Democratic County Chair. I told her I had read Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas?" She said, "And you came anyway."
Except for San Antonio, Austin, Houston, and Galveston, places I lived in Texas were highly Republican. In California, we lived in San Bernardino County, which is also heavily Republican. But in all those places we joined Democratic groups. We made an impact even though we lost more races than we won. In San Bernardino County, our bete noire was an up and coming Republican County Commissioner, but he had to resign when he went to prison on drug offenses. The Texas counties where we lived were ancestrally Democratic. In the 1980s and 1990s they gradually switched to Republican dominance. Race and religion were the main factors.
Kansas' ancestral Republicanism comes from the Civil War and the posturing before it: this is where John Brown made his stand first, though he later met his Waterloo at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia (how's that for a mixed metaphor?). Pro-Slavery irregulars from Missouri coveted Kansas and they and the abolitionists waged a form of guerilla warfare over much of eastern Kansas that was termed "Bleeding Kansas" in the late 1850s. I heard a guy who was from South Carolina remark, "You know, we started the Civil War," to which an adopted Kansan who's my friend replied, "No you didn't, we did!"
My friend was right - the pro-Union sentiment here led to pro-Republican sentiment after Lincoln was martyred. The Republicans milked it for all they could. It was called "Waving the Bloody Shirt". From the late 1860s to early 1900s Union Veterans dominated the electorate north of the Mason-Dixon Line and voted accordingly. Ironically we saw a remnant of this in the electral college results of 1976 - when Southerner Jimmy Carter swept "The Solid South" except Virginia. In Dixie they joked about how nice itn would be to have a President without an accent for a change. But several states which are solidly blue today could not stomach voting for a Southerner.
This sentiment continues to prevail in the northern Plains and Rocky Mountain states. But that's of course not all that makes them vote Republican. There's more history to it, certainly. In the 1890s Kansas like other Plains states flirted with Populism. It was not the sort of populism the pundit class means when they speak of Rush Limbaugh as a populist orator: it was real, ground-up poor farmers and tradesmen rising up against the railroads, banks, and other big business of the day. That was what William Allen White, editor of the Emporia Gazzette [name of paper corrected per a commenter - thanks!] and voice of sensible small town Republicanism railed against when he wrote the first "What's The Matter With Kansas?" Populism died out, in no small part because it was a regional movement and to expand in the South it allied itself with racist elements. The Jim Crow laws of the Southern states date from that decade too. William Jennings Bryan led a semi-populist caucus of the Democratic Party which led him to the Democratic nomination in 1896, 1900, and 1908, but no wins, not even close, in no small part because businesses threatened to close and fire employees if he did (just like some did over Obamacare!). Bryan had to settle for Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, which he resigned when he saw Wilson was leading the U.S. into World War I, and finally as a laughingstock defender of Tennessee's anti-evolution law in the Scopes trial in 1925.
The Dakotas and Montana remained somewhat populist, as did Iowa and Minnesota, but all these states have strong right-wing movements as well. Now, the Dakotas are more right-wing than before as is Nebraska and Idaho. Wyoming is more business-conservative.
Kansas and Nebraska - some would say the same about the Northern Rocky Mountain states - turned conservative as the economy improved and expanded. In 1936, Kansan Alf Landon was the Republican nominee but failed to carry his own state against FDR. Landon was a conservative in the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover mode. After FDR though, Kansas went back to being reliably Republican, casting its electoral votes for the GOP nominee in every election since except the LBJ landslide in 1964. Yet Landon's daughter, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, a moderate Republican, served several terms in the Senate.
Follow me below the squiggly for more of Kansas' political history in the modern era.
Ask anyone which Kansas politician they can name and most who can name one will say Bob Dole. Few remember Dole almost lost his first re-election in 1970 to Democrat Dr. Bill Roy. It was the first time anti-abortion rhetoric played in a major campaign, and Dole was the one who did it. As a doctor, Roy had performed abortions. Otherwise, Dole was conservative, in the traditional pro-business sense, but he's called a RINO by those who dominate the GOP today. In 1996 he took the risky step of resigning his Senate seat hoping to gain traction for his Presidential bid. It didn't help. Moderate Republican Governor Bill Graves appointed another moderate, then-Lieutenant Governor Sheila Frahm, to Dole's unexpired Senate term. Two years later, Frahm was defeated in the primary by right-wing Congressman Sam Brownback, who now sits in Topeka as our Governor. A bench on the state capitol grounds stands as a memorial to Frahm.
By the late 1990s, the far right gained control of the state Republican Party. Phill Kline, an anti-abortion lawyer, was elected state Attorney General. Kline misused his office to hassle Wichita's Dr. George Tiller and Planned Parenthood and was defeated by a Democrat after one term. He was later disbarred. Tiller's clinic was one of the few which performed late term abortions. He survived one assasination atempt, but was later murdered by an anti-abortion activist from Missouri. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, was elected Governor in part as a reaction to Kline and the shenanigans of the State Boardof education, which tried to impose a creationist science education curiculum.
As we know, Sebelius went to Washington as Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services. she was succeeded by her Lieutenant Governor, Mark Parkinson, a former moderate republican who switched to Democrat. Parkinson declined to run for a full term, perhaps because he knew he would have a tough race against Brownback. by then. Teabagger resentment was ascendant, leading to the 2010 debacle. The Democratic nominee against Brownback, State Senator Tom Holland, was vastly underfunded and defeated in a wave election.
Conservative pundit Michael Barone has remarked about how in the Midwest, anti-abortion activists who are mostly Catholic are strident, while the states with the heaviest concentrations of Catholics - Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and California - have all but nonexistent antiabortion activism. Catholics are a distinct minority in the Midwest outside concentrations in places like Chicago's Northside and Milwaukee. But drive down any interstate in Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, or Missouri, and sooner or later, you will see antiabortion billboards, mostly homemade, in the adjacent ields of Catholic farmers. Most contain relatively benign messages urging pregnant women to not abort, but militancy lurks beneath them. Barone theorizes the Catholic minority in the Midwest feels besieged, wheras something the anticlericalism of the Catholic European nations exists among nominal Catholics on the American coasts, especially among men.
Wichita in particular is a hot antiabortion battleground, in large part due to the presence of Tiller's clinic, now operated as Southwind Women's Healthcare Center. Culturally, Wichita is more similar to Oklahoma City and Dallas than the Kansas City metro area which is practically Chicagolike. Kansas City, Missouri, is a progressive city with a black Mayor and Congressman. The Kansas-side suburbs are mixed - Frank hails from there and discusses their culture extensively in his book. He divides them between the rich suburbs, which favor moderate Republicans, and the more downscale ones, which are hotbeds of Teabaggerism. The town that elects the most far-right antigay State Representative and Sate Senator is Olathe, a downward-trending exurb that Tom Witt, the lobbyist in Topeka for the Kansas Equality Coalition (the state level gay rights group) calls "Crazytown". Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas, is a liberal college town, or a "latte town" as David Brooks calls places like that. Its County, Douglas, and heavily African-American Wyandotte County which contains Kansas City, Kansas (There they say "KCK" and "KCMO") were the only two carried by Obama. Riley County, which contains Manhattan and Kansas State University, is more mixed. Other towns along Interstate 70 which bisects the state from east to west - Junction City, Salina, and Hays - are competitive, but not by much. The rest of Kansas is a sea of red with more cattle than people.
Brownback got in the Governor's seat in 2010, but in 2012, the right-wing primaried enough moderate Republicans that they got a supermajority. Since then they've passed all kinds of crazy legislation, mostly antiabortion crap. People have a negative view of the legislature and Brownback. Right now in polls he is trailing his Democratic challenger, State Representative Paul Davis. But Davis has a tough row to hoe here. Brownback will have beaucoup funding. And with the Catholic crazy and evangelical crazy alliance, he'll be avoiding social isses. But there's hope.
The Teabagger Governors elected in 2010 are all faceing tough challenges - Corbett in Pennsylvania, Kasich in Ohio, Snyder in Michigan, Scott in Florida, Walker in Wisconsin, LePage in Maine, and Brownback. Corbett, LePage, and Scott look like goners. Kasich will probablyn surive, and Snyder maybe too. Walker is iffy, but the fact he survived the recall gives him strength. Brownback? Who knows? We Dems in Kansas were pleasantly surprised at the two polls showing davis leading but we have no illusions: this'll be a damn tough fight. Much as we love the stat much of it's hostile teritory for a Democrat.
Can Davis win? It's possible but the odds are tough. As President Obama said, the "clinging to guns and religion" is a real thing in the more backward states. Kansas is a state with possibilities, but sometimes it's hard to see them. I've found it the oddest of my three home states. The ancestral republicanism, plus the religious right and teabagger ascendancy, makes it a tough go for any Democrat.