Politics & Policy

The Matter with Kansas

(Mtsue/Dreamstime)
Bad news for Republicans on the prairie

Kansas last went Democratic in a presidential election in 1964, joining 43 other states plus the District of Columbia in choosing Lyndon Baines Johnson, who had ascended to the presidency after the assassination of John Kennedy less than a year before, over conservative firebrand Barry Goldwater. As of Friday, Hillary Rodham Clinton led Donald Trump in Kansas by seven points in the Zogby poll, respondents to which were 44 percent Republican and 28 percent Democratic.

One poll in one state on one day many months out from Election Day: All of the usual caveats apply here. Also relevant is the fact that 21 percent of those polled in Kansas had not decided on a candidate and half said that they are “very dissatisfied” with their choices.

One sympathizes with the dissatisfied and the undecided: If you were facing the prospect of having a testicle removed with a grapefruit spoon, you probably would not take any great solace from being able to choose which testicle.

But the prospect of forcible amputation should be very much on the minds of Republicans nationally: That is what they are facing in the Senate, and perhaps beyond.

Having led the GOP to one of the most commanding positions it ever has enjoyed — a majority in the House, a majority in the Senate, a very large majority of governorships and state legislative chambers, a concomitant ascent in the courts and bureaucracies — Republicans and right-facing populists were driven mad by the presence of Barack Obama in the White House, and by his cynical exploitation of the expansive reading of executive power that (forgive me for noticing) a faction of conservatives spent years refining during the Bush administration.

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Perhaps equally important, conservatives, who by their nature have a relatively weak feel for popular culture, failed to appreciate the emergence of the presidency as an instrument of pure celebrity rather than a traditional political office, a process prodded along by President Obama (and certainly, though to a lesser extent, by others before him) and now supercharged by the presence of Donald Trump, a famous game-show host, tabloid-scandal subject, occasional professional-wrestling figure, and demagogue who will be, barring something on the order of divine intervention or an intraparty coup, the Republican standard-bearer in 2016. Jesse Ventura, the other professional-wrestling figure who connected with the conspiratorial and populist tendencies in our politics, was not an aberration: He was a portent. Rush Limbaugh may have peaked too soon to be carried to the White House on the fickle tide of capricious celebrity, but give Joanne Nosuchinsky or J. J. Watt a few years.

#share#The American presidency is an unusual office, one that becomes stranger by the year as its nature is slowly (and sometimes not so slowly) converted from that of chief administrator of the federal bureaucracy and head of government into that of a pseudo-monarch, an anointed embodiment of the national identity. The character of the office, having been distorted beyond recognition, is in the popular mind entirely subsumed by the character of the man in the office, and hence the power of celebrity, with its promise of larger-than-life personalities.

Lesser offices are not immune from that personifying and aggrandizing tendency, as a few governors (Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger, two sometime professional wrestlers who appeared in action movies together) have demonstrated, but candidates for the Senate and the House of Representatives, along with most prospective governors and state legislators, remain ordinary politicians: lawyers and businessmen who out of genuine concern for the public good or mild psychosis enter careers in elected office. And it may prove an awkward year for such conventional politicians marked with an R on the ballot.

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Mrs. Clinton will be energetically courting voters in competitive states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Florida, and Nevada, with a president and a popular former president at her side. As it happens, Republican Senate candidates are, at the moment, in relatively weak positions in many of those states. In Pennsylvania, Senator Pat Toomey leads by only a point in the most recent Quinnipiac poll. In New Hampshire, Senator Kelly Ayotte also leads by only a point. In Ohio, Rob Portman trails former governor Ted Strickland, who is, if there is such a thing, a Trump Democrat, a batty Buchananite populist who once denounced Mitt Romney for lacking “economic patriotism.” The polls are not at the moment very encouraging for any of the Republican Senate candidates in Florida. There may be a glimmer of hope in Nevada.

Trump and his factota have a maddening habit of lying constantly about almost everything they talk about, but there is one thing that he says of himself that is genuinely true: He is a different kind of Republican candidate. He has suggested that his unique appeal might put into play such traditional Democratic strongholds as New York and California. But Trump isn’t close in the polls in either of those states, and Republicans are not exactly experiencing a renaissance at large on the coasts: It is not easy to see how Chuck Schumer could blow his current 37-point lead in New York; in California, no Republican was able to muster sufficient support even to get on the ballot, the first time this has happened since California began direct election of senators. Connecticut seems a lost cause. Farther inland, Republican senators in Illinois and Wisconsin are in poor positions as well.

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Democrats were able to reshape American institutions in the postwar era not because they dominated at the White House (it’s been a six-six split on the dozen presidents after Franklin D. Roosevelt) but because of the prestige of the New Deal, their long domination of Congress (after the 1994 GOP wave, Newt Gingrich and other Republicans toured offices on Capitol Hill that they had never been permitted to enter), and generally strong position in the states. (Republicans in Texas, today seen as the model of a red state, won their first majority in the state house since Reconstruction in the election of 2002. Tom Craddick, who became speaker of the Texas house after that election, had been one of four Republicans in the state house when he was elected in the 1960s.)

With regard to the presidency, there are for Republicans two possible outcomes that are likely in November: They will lose or they will win. Which is worse is difficult to say: If they lose, as seems likely at this moment, they may very well lose disastrously, giving up the Senate in the process and reducing their standing in the House and in the states. If they win, they will win behind a mercurial, bored, autocratic know-nothing who shares few of their values and has long been strongly opposed to many of the positions they hold dear, on subjects ranging from the Second Amendment to the right to life.

Watching his supporters brawl with protesters at a rally, Trump described the scene: “Exciting.”

No doubt.

#related#The people of Kansas, who traditionally have been more Republican than conservative, are at the moment looking at all this a little sideways, and apparently drawing from this great gaudy reality-television pageant political conclusions different from the one upon which Donald Trump has founded his electoral hopes. There have been a few remarkable blowouts in modern presidential elections: 1964, 1972, 1980, and 1984. Kansas was always on the winner’s side. The state may very well cleave to its historical Republican affiliation in November, out of habit or sentiment. But “Republican” does not mean what it did a year ago, and that will not be without consequences.

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