Politics & Policy

Myth of the Prairie Queen

As a vice-presidential candidate, the governor of Kansas sounds better with the stereotype turned up loud.

I’m in France, but I can hear the racket from here: The women of America are offended. It’s about Hillary’s apparent loss to Barack Obama. As Jeanne Cummings at Politico grimly notes, “Many women are passionate about seeing the highest political glass ceiling shattered.” Her question is everywoman’s question: “Can the sisterhood save Hillary?”

The answer is “no,” and that’s a pickle for Obama, since alienating half the adult population isn’t in the Unite-us playbook. But Hillary has made a place on the national Democratic ticket into a kind of distaff entitlement, so suddenly the entire Democratic party is acting like Saturday-night sailors. Men who have never looked at a woman with interest in their adult lives are suddenly checking out every female who passes before them: those rich-women senators from Michigan or wherever, Patty Murray, Barbara Boxer!

But for the last several months, the one name that’s remained buoyant on the list of possible running mates for Barack Obama has been the governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius.

Kos posted a Sebelius pin-up a couple of years ago, sending readers in Brooklyn off to find Kansas on the map, and other bloggers began following along. Last January, she was chosen to deliver the Democrats’ response to the state of the union address, and now, with Hillary Clinton down on her luck, Sebelius’ star seems to be shining brightly. Everybody’s taking Sebelius seriously, even including Robert Novak, who explained this weekend in the Washington Post that having her archbishop warn her away from Communion and inviting the staff of Planned Parenthood over to the house for a party makes her “the national pro-choice poster girl.”

Sebelius, a former trial lawyer, is a smart and attractive politician. The daughter of a liberal governor of Ohio, John Gilligan, she married the son of a Kansas congressman, won a statehouse seat and never looked back. The leader of the left-wing pro-choice contingent in Topeka, she ran for the most modest of statewide offices — insurance commissioner — and parlayed that into the governorship in 2002.

In addition to being a Planned Parenthood fund-raiser, she’s also an Emily’s List liberal and, like all of her predecessors in the Kansas statehouse, she has the support of both her own party and “moderate” Republicans, who would be Democrats anywhere else in America — and who would rather root for the Cornhuskers than vote for a conservative Republican.

Kansas has never had a conservative governor, despite the urban stereotype about all those right-wingers stealing the heart of America. So when Sebelius nabbed the governorship against a weak opponent who’d been bloodied in a tough primary, she was beatified in the coastal press as a political water-walker.

The Sebelius miracle repeated itself when she ran again in 2006 and defeated a very nice doctor from Emporia when the other potential candidates all stayed home. Democrats, who amount to less than 30 percent of registered voters, trounced Republicans in fund-raising four-to-one, and nobody noticed. No wonder Democrats have filled the governor’s office for 35 of the last 50 years.

Not that it matters. Most Kansans, like most Americans, know the teams in their town and the leaders of their nation, but few care about the complex politics of their state. Sebelius may not be the most popular governor Kansas has had, but she’s the most popular governor the Kansas press has ever had. The newspapers in Kansas simply do not print uncomfortable news about Sebelius.

For example, you’d think a recent Rasmussen poll that shows her favorable rating holding steady in the state would have seen ink in at least one Kansas newspaper. After all, when the governor gives a speech on the usefulness of car seats for children, it makes headlines. But no. It took almost a week before some blogger mentioned it on the Kansas City Star’s website.

Here’s why: According to Rasmussen, McCain leads Obama in Kansas by about 20 points. That’s about the same as George W. Bush’s margin in 2004. That’s not a good sign for Sebelius, unless she wants to be the next Alf Landon.

But it gets worse — so bad, in fact, that even that Kansas City blogger couldn’t bear to repeat the news. Obama’s numbers in Kansas actually drop if she’s on the ticket:

If Kathleen Sebelius is selected to run as the Democrats Vice Presidential nominee, would you be more or less likely to vote for Barack Obama for President?

28% More likely

34% Less likely

32% No impact

6% Not sure

Is that just local fatigue talking? Maybe, but far from Kansas, in distant Philadelphia, a poll taken for a local TV station shows that Obama would take Philly without much trouble — so long as his running mate isn’t Kathleen Sebelius.

According to the poll, if the choice is between Obama and Sebelius and McCain and Huckabee, McCain would actually win.

McCain defeating Obama in Philadelphia? Now that’s the sort of political miracle only Kathleen Sebelius could deliver.

Denis Boyles is the author, most recently, of Superior, Nebraska. He teaches at The Brouzils Seminars.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...

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