LAWRENCE — Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White brandished ink pen like a cudgel to confront a Kansas political environment that epitomized lost opportunity and rubbed raw by snickering of outsiders.
“Go east and you hear them laugh at Kansas; go west and they sneer at her; go south and they cuss her; go north and they have forgotten her,” White wrote in the 1896 editorial “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”
Independent film producer Scott Richardson, who is working on a documentary of White in advance of the 2018 sesquicentennial of his birth, finds himself searching for an answer to the stumbling Republican and Democratic parties in modern Kansas. He’s fallen in with like-minded folks interested in creating a new party organization with the decency and flexibility to draw centrists together and win Kansas elections.
“I’ve been a registered independent for most of my adult life,” he said. “There’s no place for me.”
Richardson and a collection of independents, Democrats and Republicans are working to erect a foundation for Party of the Center. The objective is to be a player in 2018 elections by gaining official recognition as a party, placing candidates on November ballots and drawing support of voters weary of the far right’s hijacking of the GOP and the Democratic Party’s surge to the far-left fringe.
“So many people like the idea, but can’t comprehend it working,” said Scott Morgan, a Party of the Center organizer who ran for secretary of state as a moderate Republican in 2014. “It’s hard for people to wrap their minds around a new non-ideologically crazy party. You walk them through it and they say, ‘Why the hell not?’”
The centrists’ push coincides with return to the Kansas political scene of Greg Orman, who is preparing to wage a well-financed campaign for governor as an independent in 2018. Orman put a scare four years ago into U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who had grown accustomed over decades to modest campaign competition by fellow Republicans and rival Democrats.
Morgan said Orman’s candidacy is a significant political moment. If Orman wins, Morgan said, it would be a major achievement made possible only by tapping into disenchanted Kansans across the political spectrum. But, Morgan said, it’s not enough.
“It does nothing to create sustainable change,” Morgan said. “It’s a one-off, personality-driven candidacy. You need something built around a philosophy. People want a label, a short cut for picking people.”
The Libertarian, Republican and Democratic parties are the mainstays of statewide ballots in Kansas.
As the calendar flips to 2018, Richardson said, Party of the Center activists will get serious about obtaining 18,000 petition signatures — 2 percent of all ballots cast in the last gubernatorial election — necessary to be recognized by the state. The new party would maintain a place on general election ballots as long as nominees receive 1 percent of the vote.
“It’s starting to grow beyond our immediate group,” said Morgan, who has watched the effort blossom from three dozen core supporters to include about 200 people eager to help the petition drive.
Morgan, who made his Party of the Center intentions public in a break-up letter to the Kansas GOP, said the goal was to make a splash in high-level offices and to begin building a bench by participating in down-ballot races.
If Party of the Center succeeds, he said, it must harness opportunities drawn from a progressive moderation that is liberal in its human concerns and conservative in its economic proposals.
“In short,” Morgan said, “a group not in the gutters on the left and right but walking down the broad middle. This will be difficult, but we also know that partifying the middle is long overdue.”