Top Dems Show Support For GOP Primary Candidates

By John Celock

It’s not just moderate Republicans endorsing a Democrat in Kansas, two of the state’s top Democrats are donating to Republicans in contested primaries.

Buried amid campaign finance reports filed this week are donations that state Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon has donated to two GOP candidates, while Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Jill Docking has donated to two Republicans, including one of the same as Wagnon. The revelation comes as Kansas Republicans criticize the involvement of the Kansas Values Institute – which is headed by a former campaign advisor to President Barack Obama – in favor of moderate Republican state legislative candidates in contested GOP primaries.

The reports show that Wagnon donated $100 to state Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Sally Cauble (R) and another $50 to GOP state House candidate Barbara Bunting. Docking, the running mate of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis, donated $250 each to Cauble and Republican state Board of Education candidate Jim Porter. Cauble is being challenged in the GOP primary by high school principal Meg Wilson in the fifth district, while Porter, a retired schools superintendent from Fredonia, is facing off against high school biology teacher Martin Burke in the ninth district. Bunting is challenging state Rep. Marc Rhoades (R-Newton) in the 72nd district. No Democrats have filed for those seats, meaning the Republican primary winner is assured election in November.

“I know Sally and I know she is terrific,” Wagnon told The Celock Report about her decision to donate to Cauble. “The state School Board is not a partisan race. I am pleased to be on her contributor list.”

Wagnon noted that her husband, William, had served on the state Board of Education with Cauble and that Democrats were not fielding a candidate in the race since the western Kansas district is heavily Republican. Under Kansas law, state Board of Education candidates run in party primaries in August and under the party banner in November.

Wagnon described Bunting “as the best person for the job” and “solid, middle of the road, moderate” and noted that no Democrats were running in that district. She said that Rhoades and the conservative Republicans who control the state Legislature have teamed with Gov. Sam Brownback (R) to push a conservative ideology in state government and candidates are needed to move the state in an opposite direction. She said that Kansans wants “common sense decision makers.” Wagnon criticized Rhoades’ views on education spending.

A spokesman for Docking, the wife of former Lt. Gov. Thomas Docking (D), did not return a call and email left for comment. Wagnon explained what could have led Docking to donate to a Republican.

“I don’t want to speak for Jill, but she and I are the kinds of Democrats who look for the best candidates we can find and sometimes those are Republicans,” Wagnon said.

Wagnon said she has also donated to Democratic candidates as well this year.

Kansas Republicans have been growing in their opposition to what they are characterizing as Democratic meddling in GOP primaries. A source of frustration has been outside spending by the Kansas Values Institute, a 501(c)(4) group, on behalf of moderate Republican candidates facing off against conservatives in Tuesday’s primary election.

KVI is chaired by Dan Watkins, a prominent Democrat and 2008 senior campaign advisor to Obama, who was considered by the president to serve as the state’s U.S. attorney in 2009. Watkins was also chief of staff to former Gov. John Carlin (D) in the 1980s. Thomas Docking was Carlin’s second lieutenant governor.

The other board members of KVI are former state Senate Vice President John Vratil (R-Leawood) and former state Rep. Jill Quigley (R-Olathe), both moderate Republicans who have endorsed Davis over Brownback in the gubernatorial race.

On Friday, Kansas Republican National Committeewoman Helen Van Etten released a statement criticizing KVI’s Democratic ties and Republican political consultant Jared Suhn released a social media picture calling 10 moderate Republicans supported by KVI the “Obama Values Supporting Team.”

“As Republicans across the state head to the polls, I believe it is critical they know that members of Obama’s campaign team are spending scores of thousands of dollars to play in our Republican primaries,” Van Etten said in her statement.

Conservative legislative candidates have received support from outside groups in the 2014 and 2012 elections as well, including the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity.

Kansas Republican Party political director Heath Kohl questioned why Republicans are accepting donations from Wagnon and Docking, along with being backed by KVI. Under election law, candidates are not allowed to coordinate with the outside group, but Kohl noted that candidates could come out and oppose the support.

“Make a statement that ‘I do not want to receive money from prominent Democrats,’” Kohl told The Celock Report. “For the Democratic nominee to openly come out and give money, that doesn’t pass the smell test. It is called financially endorsing. It is the same thing with the KVI, and they say that they cannot control the money, then denounce it.”

Kohl said that some have asked the state GOP not to get involved in Republican primaries, but he questioned why Democrats are getting involved.

“People say the Republican Party has to stay out of primaries, I am ok with that,” he said. “But in what world is it ok for the Democratic Party to get involved in Republican primaries and not the Republican Party to get involved in Republican primaries.”

Wagnon said that voters are looking for politicians who will do the best job and not for people to be kept in boxes based on partisan affiliation. She said Davis has picked up support from a group of containing many moderate Republicans who had held elective office in the state due to voters wanting to move away from a conservative ideology.

“When I come out in support of a Republican candidate it is because I don’t have a Democratic candidate in the race,” Wagnon said. “I want the best Republican to win.”

Bunting, who was criticized in Suhn’s social media picture, told The Celock Report that she was “surprised” by Wagnon’s donation but noted that she has had support from people across party lines in her race. She stressed “I am a Republican.”

Porter did not return a message left for comment.

Wilson said that while she views herself as more conservative than Cauble she did not run on ideological views but rather to set an example to her students about leadership. She said though that she is not surprised that Wagnon would donate to Cauble.

“This I my first dabble into the political world,” Wilson said. “Education is a pretty liberal career, it doesn’t surprise me at all.”

It is rare, but not uncommon, for top party members to endorse candidates of the other party, but most occur after the party primary or for a candidate with only token opposition in the primary. Last year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) was backed by over 60 Democratic elected officials in his successful reelection bid over Democrat Barbara Buono, who was backed by one Republican mayor. Among Christie’s Democratic backers were Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzio and state Sen. Brian Stack, who is also the mayor of Union City, two of the state’s most powerful Democrats.

There is past precedent in Kansas as well. In 2006, then Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) tapped former state Republican Party Chairman Mark Parkinson as her second term running mate for lieutenant governor. Sebelius’ first lieutenant governor, John Moore, was also a Republican before running on the Democratic ticket. Parkinson succeeded Sebelius in the governor’s mansion after Sebelius left for a position in Obama’s cabinet.

Kansas Republicans have said they have concerns that the Republicans who are getting backing from Democratic aligned groups could end up voting more with Democrats while in office. Kohl said that he believes that Republicans who are backed by prominent Democrats could face other problems long term.

“If you have backers from the other party you will lose trust and confidence of your own party,” he said.

Wagnon said that she is not worried about any backlash and said that she would continue to back Republicans in primaries down the road.

“I am sorry if (Kansas Republican Party executive director) Clay Barker’s Republican Party doesn’t like that, but too bad,” she said.

Update 5:15 PM

Cauble told The Celock Report on late Sunday afternoon that both Wagnon and Docking are friends of hers that is what drove her to accept their donations. She said that she looked at both being “personal friends of mine and I was not looking at party politics.”

“They are very dear friends of mine,” Cauble said. “Some people take it as a political donations but the two women are personal friends of mine.”

Cauble also questioned the motives of Republicans who had objected to her and other Republicans receiving money from Docking and Wagnon.

“Are these same people concerned about the fact that in the Republican primaries prominent Republicans getting involved,” she said.