Loren Stanton email@example.com 913-385-6068POSTED: 10:00 am CDT July 5, 2011UPDATED: 12:00 am CDT July 10, 2011
Sun Illustration by Chuck Kurtz
Is there a split in Kansas’ Republican Party? Some say yes.
For years now there has been a clear power struggle within the Kansas Republican Party, but some major party figures say something about that tussle has changed.
The rift between conservatives and moderates, they maintain, is widening into a chasm that could have significant implications for the party and the state.
“I see Kansas Republicans being more divided than in years past,” said Senate Majority Leader John Vratil of Leawood. “There now are three elements in the party. There are the moderates, the conservatives and what I call the radicals. These radicals are a new group, and they have forced conservatives to move even farther to the right.”
With Sam Brownback in the governor’s chair and many others on the right holding legislative seats, conservative forces in the Capitol are stronger than ever.
But many aligned with that side of the party want more. They seek decisive legislative majorities that could push an aggressive conservative agenda.
And if getting there means working for the ouster of more moderate GOP senators, then so be it.
Vratil is one of three such targeted senators from Johnson County, and he is being frank about what is happening and what it could mean.
“This has a chance to destroy the Kansas Republican Party as an effective political entity,” Vratil said. “Even Bob Dole would be considered a RINO by (their) standards. He has told me that.”
One Johnson County-based conservative political group called Union of Patriots recently held what it called a RINO (Republican In Name Only) Retirement Dinner. Its intent was to rally support for defeating Vratil and fellow Johnson County moderates Sens. Tim Owens and Terrie Huntington.
While there long have been conservative Republicans who rise up to challenge moderates, Vratil sees a key difference this time. Some sitting Republican legislators are openly endorsing efforts to challenge fellow GOP incumbents.
“That really has divided the party, and it’s something we’ve never seen before,” Vratil said.
Steve Shute, co-chairman of Union of Patriots, confirmed that several incumbent legislators attended that RINO dinner.
The grassroots organization has no links to the Republican Party, and Shute said its primary aim has nothing to do with partisanship. Instead, “We are looking to stamp out corruption,” Shute said.
And, he added, Union of Patriots will oppose policymakers or candidates from any party or ideology whom the group sees as corrupt.
It just so happens that the only targets of the recent dinner were three moderates (or, in Shute’s estimation, liberals) who have helped thwart some conservative initiatives.
The type of corruption Shute alludes to does not involve taking bribes or doing anything else illegal. He rates as corruption such things as Owens bottling up a bill in committee that would overhaul how judges are selected. It is Vratil failing to excuse himself from debate and votes on education issues even though his law firm has represented school district interests. It is both of them “looking the other way” when state agencies engage in practices the group sees as improper or wasteful.
Vratil clearly believes the kind of internal divide evidenced by the RINO dinner – coupled with what he sees as a radical conservative agenda – could prove detrimental to the party. Kansas voters, he maintains, still are predominantly moderate and they will not accept a Legislature that leans too far either right or left.
Ronnie Metsker, chairman of the Johnson County Republican Party, does not see things in such dire terms.
Metsker said that while he always emphasizes party unity, there is no escaping the fact that the GOP has diverse points of view in Johnson County that sometimes will clash.
“My challenge as county party chairman is to bring people together. With that in mind, we were able to win 33 of the 35 (legislative) contests we had candidates in last time. So when there is talk that the party is fractured and that Republicans are divided, no. No,” Metsker said. “I don’t know that we have a fracture, but I think we are having a family discussion.”
At the same time, he acknowledged that all the election successes might be adding to tensions within the party.
“Once you have won everything it seems the only place to go is to shoot at one another, and we’re probably experiencing that right now,” Metsker said.
The stakes candidates will be shooting for in the next election are high as far as control of the Legislature is concerned. A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans kept some parts of the conservative legislative agenda from being implemented in this year’s session, but it would not take much to alter the dynamic.
According to Vratil’s math, if two Senate seats shift from moderates to conservatives, the balance of power also will shift.
“The Senate serves as a very good backstop for rational commonsense thinking,” Vratil said. Take away those two votes, and the backstop disappears, he said.
Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas GOP and also a Leawood resident, agrees with Metsker. He believes that once the dust of the primaries settles, party unity will be restored regardless which candidate emerges victorious.
“We all will be dedicated to supporting the winner. We’ll pull behind all with an R behind their names,” Barker said. “At their core almost all Republican candidates have similar core beliefs.” (NOlathe Note: Maybe the R in front of The Party Platform is more important than the R after a candidate’s name?)
But Sen. Owens of Overland Park, another of the so-called RINOs, also believes the rhetoric and tactics now being employed by some on the right will be damaging.
“If they continue in the right-wing hard-core Republican belief of things and display an angry and vicious approach to things, it will backfire on them,” Owens said. “People are going to get tired of that and want us to get back to rationality.”
Recently, Owens called a press conference to refute an inaccurate accusation lodged against him by a conservative blogger.
The blog entry maintained that Owens had lied about having received three Bronze Stars while serving in Vietnam as a colonel in an infantry intelligence unit. Owens produced the medals and certificates proving they were his. The blogger ultimately apologized.
While no one in the party structure had anything to do with that incident, Owens said such things happen when the political climate is so divisive.
Even some Democrats are sympathizing with their beleaguered moderate Republican colleagues.
Senator Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said he agrees with Vratil that a more conservative push would lead to policies most Kansans would oppose. Of course, Democratic legislators must rely on forming a coalition with Republican moderates if they hope to achieve their goals.
“We have a mainly moderate majority in the Senate. Our role is not to push an agenda that is right or left, but to prevent things (from either extreme) from becoming law,” Hensley said.
The U.S. Congress, Hensley believes, could take a lesson from Kansas senators in how to form an effective bipartisan coalition. If the next election shifts the Senate to a conservative majority, however, Hensley fears that example of cooperation will be lost.