By John Celock
A Republican Kansas legislator is being slammed by her opponent the day before the GOP primary election for ties to the Democratic Party, including an apparent endorsement from the county’s top Democrat.
Republican state House candidate Tom Bell, a conservative, placed an ad in Monday’s Salina Journal accusing his opponent state Rep. Diana Dierks (R-Salina), a moderate, of being backed by Democratic unions, Saline County Democratic Chairman Phil Black and statewide Democratic groups in her bid for a second term. Bell’s ad is the latest in a series of accusations by Republicans that the state Democratic Party is attempting to influence GOP primaries.
“It was a way to respond to the amount of support she is getting from Kansas Values Institute. The outright endorsement from the Saline County Democratic Party Chair,” Bell told The Celock Report about the ad. “Voters probably weren’t aware of all of that support from Dem leaning and outright Dem organizations. Republican voters should worry when Democrats get so involved in Republican primaries.”
The Kansas Values Institute is a 501(c)(4) group that has been sending out mailers backing moderate Republican legislative candidate across the state, along with attacking Republican legislators. Republicans have opposed the involvement of the group, noting that it is chaired by Dan Watkins, a top 2008 campaign advisor to President Barack Obama, and saying it is evidence of Democratic interference with GOP affairs. The other KVI board members are former state Senate Vice President John Vratil (R-Leawood) and former state Rep. Jill Quigley (R-Overland Park), both moderate Republicans who have endorsed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis this year.
Bell said that he is concerned about what he said are KVI mailers that describe Dierks as having a conservative voting record. He also noted that Dierks ran for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 1994 and had support from Black. Bell said that district residents should be asking why Black wants to be involved in GOP primaries.
“They are talking about her so-called conservative voting record,” Bell said of KVI. “They were trying to sell her as a conservative when she has one of the most liberal voting records in the House.”
Dierks did not respond to a message left for comment regarding Bell’s ad.
Black told The Celock Report that he has not formally endorsed Dierks but acknowledged that he has said that Dierks is the better choice. Bell said he was referencing an email Black has sent Democrats discussing the race and a Facebook post Black had placed on the page of a local reporter where he indicated support for Dierks.
In the Facebook post, Black discusses the need for the parties to recruit their own candidates, but also indicates a preference in the Bell and Dierks race, where no Democrat is running.
“If you live in the 71st and are registered as a Republican, vote Diana Dierks,” Black wrote.
Screenshot of Black’s Facebook post. Click to enlarge.
Black acknowledged that he wrote the FB post but dismissed it as an official endorsement. He said that he was trying to stress the need for the parties to field their own candidates.
“It wasn’t an official endorsement by any means,” Black said. “Facebook is Facebook.”
Black did confirm though that how he would vote if he was a registered Republican.
“If I was a Republican I would vote for Diana,” Black told The Celock Report Monday. “I have never publicly endorsed her.”
Black said his original involvement in the Dierks vs. Bell primary came as he heard that several Democrats had become Republicans in order to vote for Bell. He said that he was concerned with what he believes is Bell’s opposition to collective bargaining for public employees and due process for teachers, along with “a rumor he was endorsed by the Koch brothers.”
Black said he also reached out to Dierks and Bell with questionnaires on a variety of subjects including teacher due process and collective bargaining. He said he wanted to show where both stand.
Bell told The Celock Report that he believes due process – also known as teacher tenure – can be handled at the local level and said that he does not oppose employees bargaining collectively on the local level. Earlier this year, Kansas lawmakers eliminated statewide tenure, allowing local districts to decide the policy in their districts.
Black also indicated opposition with outside groups trying to influence the election, saying that they are trying to win Bell the seat. Bell said that he is unaware of any outside groups besides Kansans for Life sending out mail for his campaign. Black also reiterated that he believes Bell is aligned with the Koch brothers.
“I can’t give absolute fact that he is having meetings with the Koch Brothers, he doesn’t need to,” Black said. “But he is clearly their guy.”
Bell said he is not backed by the Kochs.
“It’s a lie. They have been trying to paint me that way from the day I announced,” Bell told The Celock Report. “By they I mean Democratic leadership, some other local Democratic activists and Diana supporters. But if I am being supported by the state Chamber, AFP and Koch aligned organizations, where are my checks? Phil Black is smart enough to check campaign finance reports and he won’t see money from any of those organizations.”
The Dierks vs. Bell race is not the only one where Democrats are taking a role in Republican primaries where there is no Democrat running. State Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon and Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Jill Docking have both donated money to Republicans in contested primaries. Wagnon told The Celock Report that she looks for the best candidates, which can include Republicans, if no Democrat is in the race.
State Sen. Laura Kelly (D-Topeka) has donated money to Republican Fred Patton in his bid to unseat Rep. Josh Powell (R-Topeka), along with a donation to the Democrat in that race, Chris Huntsman.
This is not the first time Dierks has been attacked for Democratic ties. Last month, Kansans for Liberty, a Wichita based group headed by Tea Party activist Craig Gabel, described Dierks as a “lifelong Democrat” who ran for governor in 2008 in a mailer attacking her and other moderate Republicans. Dierks told the Salina Journal at the time that she as not a lifelong Democrat. Kansas did not have a gubernatorial election in 2008 and Dierks was not a gubernatorial candidate in either the 2006 or 2010 elections.
Dierks did acknowledge seeking the lieutenant governorship as a Democrat in 1994 on a ticket with businessman Leslie Kitchenmaster. She told the Salina Journal that Kitchenmaster was her boss and had asked her to be his running mate so she switched parties to run. Gabel told the Salina Journal that the date was a “typo.”
“I have been a Republican at heart since I was 5,” Dierks told the Salina Journal last month.
The Kitchenmaster/Dierks ticket finished fourth in the 1994 Democratic primary, which was won by then U.S. Rep. Jim Slattery and his running mate, then state Rep. Carol Sader. Kitchenmaster and Dierks finished ahead of controversial Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps in the five-way primary.
Black said that he finds “humor” Bell thinking he holds sway within the GOP. Bell said he just wants voters to know what is going on.
“Voters should know it and ask themselves why,” Bell said of Black’s comments regarding Dierks.