Kansas politics is challenging terrain for any gubernatorial aspirant, and this primer on the state’s political landscape is kindly offered to the 17 announced candidates for governor in 2018 and those yet to follow.
The state’s political geography may be seen in three pieces: five urban hubs, the smallest rural counties and larger rural regional centers, each with unique challenges in a statewide campaign.
The urban hubs of Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee, Wyandotte and Douglas counties are growing — adding 69,000 to their population since 2010 and now comprising 54 percent of the state’s total. Their politics are competitive and distinct, ranging from racially diverse Wyandotte with voter registration favoring Democrats more than 3 to 1, to suburban Johnson — having a 2 to 1 Republican advantage over Democrats and three times the population of its metropolitan neighbor. The politics of Sedgwick, Shawnee and Douglas are colored by the economies of their major cities: Wichita, the state’s largest city, a manufacturing center; Topeka, home of state government; and Lawrence with a dominant state university complex.
Even though the urban partisan division favors Republicans by 59 to 41 percent, a Democratic candidate must win here by a substantial margin to claim the governorship. Kathleen Sebelius won with urban vote margins of 40,000 (2002) and 110,000 (2006). Paul Davis won these counties by 35,000 votes in 2014 but still lost.
Small rural counties, representing 23 percent of the state’s population, are mostly homogeneous demographically and politically. They are dominated by agriculture and for the last century have fought a losing battle against the forces of mechanization, technology and economics. Three of every four of the smallest 85 rural counties reached their peak populations in 1930 or before and have dropped steadily since then. Exceptions are found in a few counties neighboring growing urban areas and those benefiting from the red meat industry in southwest Kansas.
In the 85 smallest rural counties Republican registrations outnumber that of Democrats by 3 to 1, and Republican candidates expect to build healthy leads here. These rural voters gave Trump a 150,000 vote margin in 2016, representing two-thirds of his statewide margin. In the closer 2014 gubernatorial race these voters handed Sam Brownback the 50,000 vote margin that allowed him to overcome Davis’ urban edge.
Fifteen larger rural counties serve as regional economic centers and are scattered across the state — from Leavenworth to Finney, Crawford to Ellis. They comprise 23 percent of the state’s population and have grown slightly since 2010. Most have major state or federal facilities, such as state universities (Crawford, Ellis, Lyon and Riley), correctional institutions (Leavenworth and Reno), or military installations (Geary and Leavenworth). Others border the urban hubs (Butler, Cowley, Harvey and Miami). Finney and Ford have grown with the meat packing industry; Montgomery and Saline have independent regional reach.
Politically, the regional centers form a bridge between the urban hubs and smaller rural counties. Republicans hold a registration advantage over Democrats of slightly less than 2 to 1 in these centers. In general elections their voters tend to line up with other rural voters but with less partisan leanings. The outcome of competitive Republican primaries is more likely determined by voters in these rural centers plus the smaller rural counties than in the urban hubs.
Add to this partisan mix 525,000 “independent” voters, 30 percent of all registered voters, who are unaffiliated with any political party and slightly less prominent in smaller rural counties than in urban hubs and regional centers.
So gubernatorial hopefuls, consider this territory. Map out a winning campaign for 2018 and have at it. Best of luck.
H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.