Ryan Hussey’s detachment from the Republican Party began during the 2016 election.
“When Donald Trump was nominated, I saw the Republican Party take a shift away from the types of priorities that I felt like it used to stand for,” he said.
Hussey, 35, of Overland Park, Kansas, had been a lifelong Republican.
But with the 2019 impeachment hearings against President Trump, he decided it was time to register as a Democrat.
Hussey isn’t alone. In Johnson County — the most populous county in Kansas — the number of registered Democrats has grown about 42% since the 2016 election, according to a Beacon analysis of Kansas’ voter registration database.
Statewide, the share of registered Democrats grew from about 25% in January 2017 to 27% of registered voters by September 2020, or about 62,000 voters, The Beacon found. In that same period, the Republican share of the electorate remained at about 45%. The largest percentage increases in registered Democrats occurred in Johnson, Harvey, Riley and Douglas counties.
But the Republican Party increased its numbers, too, by nearly 54,000 voters since 2017, and still has the largest share of voters in the state. Several counties also saw gains in registered Republicans: Anderson County in southeast Kansas, which went for Trump by over 50 percentage points in 2016, saw a nearly 23% increase in Republican voters from 2017 to 2020. Wyandotte County also increased in Republican voters by nearly 21%.
Fabian Shepard, chair of the Johnson County Republican Party, said he doesn’t believe that the Republican Party is losing voters that should otherwise belong in the GOP.
“If somebody disagrees with the GOP policies, then they should be in the Democratic Party,” Shepard said. “Because if they really believe that the Democratic Party represents their values, then that would be the right place for them. And I believe that there are going to be more people who believe, especially in the state of Kansas, that the GOP policies represent their values. And so that’s the place for them.”
Kansans are increasingly choosing sides: This election cycle, fewer Kansans were unaffiliated with a party than in 2017, the data shows. Ben Meers, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, said the shifts between the two parties have given the Democrats an opening in a state that Trump won by double digits in 2016.
Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University, said these changes in the state’s political landscape could prove pivotal in several competitive races for statewide and federal offices this year, including the U.S. Senate race between Democratic state Sen. Barbara Bollier, who left the Republican Party in 2018, and incumbent U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall.
Making the switch
Although a person’s party registration does not necessarily determine who they will vote for, The Beacon spoke to several former Republicans who’ve chosen to switch parties.
“I’m an older millennial,” Hussey said. “I’m raising a young family here in Johnson County, Kansas, and long term, the Republican Party is not the kind of party that I want to be building a future for my children.”
Hussey describes himself as a center-right Republican; he supported John Kasich in 2016 and always liked the late Arizona Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain. To him and some other Kansans, the GOP’s shift has made them feel like the party no longer represents them.
“I didn’t like the idea that these were the people who were ‘speaking for me,’” said Stacey Faber, 57, of Wichita. “It didn’t line up with who I am as a person and who I expect others to be and how I expect people to be treated.”
Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said a historically red state like Kansas will see more ideological factions within the majority party ranging from moderates to conservatives. In recent years, he added, the state has seen more moderate Republicans struggling to find their place within the party. It’s what’s driven many voters to either jump ship to the Democratic Party or vote for Democratic candidates against hard-line conservatives.
The midterm elections in 2018 were pivotal for Kansas Democrats. Democrat Sharice Davids unseated eight-year Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder in the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrat Laura Kelly beat Republican Kris Kobach — a close ally of Trump — for the governor’s office, becoming the third female Democrat in Kansas to hold that seat.
Democrats also succeeded in flipping five state legislative seats, including Rui Xu in the 25th — which includes Fairway, Mission Woods, Roeland Park, Westwood Hills and parts of Mission, Mission Hills and Prairie Village — and Brandon Woodard in the 30th, a district that encompasses parts of Lenexa and Olathe.
Several incumbent Kansas state legislators also publicly announced their departure from the GOP following the 2016 election. State Rep. Stephanie Clayton, who represents Kansas’ 19th District — comprising Overland Park, Prairie Village and Leawood — switched parties in December 2018 after leadership in the Kansas Republican Party abandoned a K-12 education plan.
“That was really just the last straw that made me think, ‘I can’t stay here anymore,’” Clayton said. “I thought about it and decided that it was counterintuitive for me to remain in a party that was going against the most important issue to my constituents.”
Representing a heavily suburban district in Kansas, Clayton said the GOP’s decision to turn its back on public education was counterintuitive. Johnson County, in particular, is known for the quality of its public schools. In the latest annual report of the best high schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report, seven of the state’s top 10 public high schools are located in the county, and four of those schools are in the Blue Valley school district.
“I still consider myself a fairly moderate and even conservative person on some issues,” Clayton said. “But the Republican Party has not only started to abandon traditional Republican ideals, but in some cases have started to abandon American ideals.”
Bollier, state Sen. Dinah Sykes and former state Rep. Joy Koesten, who is running in Kansas’ Senate District 11 this year, also switched parties. Along with Clayton, all of them made their announcements within weeks of each other and either currently represent or have represented districts within Johnson County.
Clayton, who is running for reelection uncontested, said one of her biggest frustrations with the GOP is the ostracizing of moderate voters.
“My constituents are not far-right Republicans,” Clayton said. “They are moderate people, and they deserve representation.”
There are other factors influencing voters to change their party registration. Meers said the Kansas Democratic Party gained more people this year partly because, for the first time, it switched from a caucus to a closed, party-run primary. Closed party primaries require voters to register with a party in order to vote in that party’s primary, which can influence someone to update their affiliation.
The ‘Trump effect’
For Thomas Addison, 59, of Overland Park, President Trump drove his decision to leave the Republican Party.
“Trump is a despicable human being,” Addison said. “The idea that the Republicans can somehow make that guy president is utterly repulsive to me.”
Addison had always been a registered Republican. Over the years, however, he’s been leaning more independent — he hasn’t voted for a Republican nominee for president since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
This year, Addison has a new philosophy.
“Because of the Republican Party having gotten so racist and so radical, I’m now equivalent to the Blue Dog Democrats in the old southern states,” he said. “As long as there’s a ‘D’ by the name, I’m voting for that person.”
Smith of Emporia State University said this “Trump effect” is most pronounced in Johnson County. According to The Beacon’s analysis, Democrats in Johnson County make up almost 31% of all voters. Even in 2016, Trump only carried the county by less than 3 percentage points.
“There are a lot of professional, college-educated voters living there, and that’s not Trump’s base,” Smith said.
Differences in income and education levels among white Kansas voters have influenced these realignments in both parties, Miller of the University of Kansas said.
“Whites are realigning along education and income lines so that whites who have more formal education and who have higher income are getting more Democratic,” Miller said. “Whereas whites who (are) less likely to have college degrees or who are lower income — your working class whites — are getting more Republican.”
Kansas’ voter registration data also shows a gender gap in the voters who make up each party — women make up the bulk of Democrats, men make up the bulk of the Libertarian Party and Republicans are split fairly evenly between men and women.
As a woman and mother, Clayton said it was difficult to remain in the Republican Party and “have any self-respect.”
“You don’t stick around when something is treating you badly,” she said.
In Kansas, counties that track more suburban — like Johnson, Douglas and Wyandotte counties — also went heavily for Kelly in the 2018 gubernatorial race.
But the state’s more rural areas, like in southwest Kansas, are Republican terrain. In 2016, Trump easily won these southwest counties by an overwhelming margin.
“But it’s important to know that in those rural areas,” Smith said, “when the Democrats’ margin falls from a third down to less than 10%, that could also be very pivotal.”
Even if a Democratic candidate ultimately loses a county, a close margin of votes could still help that candidate overall, as it did with Gov. Kelly in 2018, Smith said. Though Kelly only won nine counties, there were several counties where single digits separated her from Kobach.
Tight Senate race
If Bollier wins the U.S. Senate race, she would become the first Democratic U.S. Senator elected in Kansas since 1932. With 4 percentage points separating Marshall from Bollier in the latest polls, the results of that race could prove pivotal in deciding which party controls the Senate.
But if Bollier is to win, gaining votes in western Kansas — prime areas of support for Trump and the district Marshall currently represents — will be key.
“If Bollier, coming out of Johnson County, and as a Democrat, can break that, it really shows that it’s a new era,” Smith said.
But Bollier isn’t the only Kansas Democratic candidate running a tight race against a Republican. In Kansas’ 2nd Congressional District, which includes the state capital of Topeka, Democrat and current Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla is running against Republican state Treasurer Jake LaTurner. The district hasn’t elected a Democratic representative since 2006, but Gov. Kelly won the district by 9 percentage points over Kobach in 2018.
Celisa Calacal is the assistant editor at The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alexis Allison is a freelance data journalist in Columbia, Missouri.
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