Moderate GOP Leader: More Republicans To Defect

By John Celock

MINNEAPOLIS – A top moderate Republican leader in Kansas is pledging that more Republicans in the state will jump ship and endorse the Democratic candidate for governor.

Former state Senate President Steve Morris (R-Hugoton) said that he and other moderate Republicans who have backed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis are in the process of recruiting more moderate Republicans to join them. One hundred moderate Republicans, almost all former elected officials endorsed Davis last month over Gov. Sam Brownback (R). Morris, who was defeated in a 2012 GOP primary by a conservative Republican, told The Celock Report of the moderate’s intentions during an interview last week at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual meeting here.

“We’re hoping to do it again with more elected officials,” Morris said.

Morris declined to specify how many moderate Republican elected officials would join the Davis campaign. Last month’s announcement, which has been hyped by the Davis campaign, is the latest salvo in the ongoing civil war between moderate and conservative Republicans. Many of those who backed Davis were either former elected officials, some dating back to the 1970s, or were moderate Republicans defeated in primaries by conservatives backed by Brownback and other conservative groups.

Among those currently in office to back Davis were several local officials who run in nonpartisan elections and retiring state Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger (R), who has long been at odds with Brownback and conservatives.

Morris did not identify which moderate Republican elected officials would be potential Davis backers or if any of the moderate Republicans currently in the state Legislature is being wooed to endorse the Democrat.

Kansas Republican Party executive director Clayton Barker downplayed Morris’ pledge, saying that he does not see any state legislators joining Davis. He noted Praeger’s ties to former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D).

“In the last botched rollout of Davis endorsements there was only one partisan elected Republican, and she was one of Kathleeen Sebelius’ closest allies,’ Barker said. “There may be a few more Davis endorsements from a smattering of low-level non-partisan officials who were part of the old defeated crony network. It would be political suicide for any current Republican legislator to make a Davis endorsement.”

Barker was noting the issues surrounding last month’s endorsements when former U.S. Rep. Jan Meyers (R) was announced as backing Davis, but then said that she had not endorsed the Democrat and was backing Brownback. Others on the list were found to have left the GOP.

One GOP lawmaker told The Celock Report that he questioned if any Republican elected officials who endorsed Davis can be trusted.

“That’s a level of honesty these politicians aren’t prepared to exhibit,” state Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) said. “If they were, they’d simply change over to Democrats and stop using the Republican brand for the purposes of getting elected.”

Morris praised Davis’ ability to work with Republicans in the state Legislature, noting that he was able to work with the Democrat, who is the state House minority leader, on transportation funding issues in 2010. With Republicans trying to paint Davis, who had been a delegate to the 2008 and 2012 Democratic National Conventions pledged to President Barack Obama, as too liberal for Kansas, Morris said it’s not true.

“He is a very credible candidate,” Morris said of Davis. “He is young and energetic. He is a centrist. Those of us who know him well know he is not an extremist in any direction.”

Morris took issue with the Obama ties, saying that conservatives have been long to tie moderates and Democrats to the president, who is deeply unpopular in the Sunflower State. He said that Davis’ support for the president comes from the minority leader’s role.

“It is a theme they are using to tie people to Obama,” Morris said. “They are trying to tie Paul Davis to Obama. He was a delegate but that is part of his responsibilities as Democratic leader.”

The Republican Governors Association is running an ad in the state attacking Davis’ past support of Obama, which included a picture of Davis at an Obama campaign office. The RGA has also highlighted Davis’ residence in Lawrence, the liberal leaning Douglas County community that is home to the University of Kansas.

Morris also distanced the Kansas Values Institute, 501(c)(4) group, from Obama. Republicans have been quick to note that KVI is chaired by Dan Watkins, who was a senior Kansas campaign advisor to Obama during the 2008 election, with the other board members being moderate Republicans. KVI took an active role in the primary earlier this month to back moderate Republicans, along with attacking conservative candidates. Conservatives fought back by noting KVI’s ties to Obama, along with calling moderates backed by KVI the “Obama Values Supporting Team.”

Morris said that KVI is a “moderate organization” and dismissed the Obama argument as a continuations of past opposition to the president.

KVI has also attempted to use Obama’s unpopularity to defeat conservative lawmakers, including mailers attempting to tie some of the most conservative legislators in Kansas to Obama. The conservatives called the Obama accusations “outlandish.”

Morris also said that he believes that Democrats will be able to obtain enough seats in the state House of Representatives in order to form a governing coalition with moderate Republicans. The state House is currently controlled by conservatives, as is the state Senate.

Barker disagreed with Morris’ math on the House majority, noting that under his math Democrats would need pick up 11 seats this year to form a majority with moderates. He said that while three new moderates have won GOP House primaries this year, the conservatives currently have 77 seats in the House, noting that of those 16 will vote with Democrats at times. Sixty-three seats are needed to control the House.

“The Republican primary was akin to a World War One trench battle. Huge resources expended, little gain,” Barker said. “A strategic disaster for the Kansas Values Institute. Almost a million dollars was spent on the 16 Republican primary races with a moderate/conservative divide and, in the end, only three seats may have changed ideology.”

Morris disagreed with those who say that former elected officials can’t have an impact on the election. He said he is getting calls from around the state praising his decision.

“We told our fellow Republicans that it is alright to vote for a Democrat,” Morris said.