The Kansas Republican Party is deep again in the cross-currents of self-dispute. Glaring differences separate party moderates and the right wing, and in spite of the discord Republicans remain the chief brokers of influence in state government. They have a governor, an attorney general, a secretary of state. They enjoy an 80-45 majority in the Kansas House and dominate the state Senate 30-10.
But this Republican state has a history of prefer-ring Democrats for governor. In the past half-century, Democrats have won nine of 15 elections for that office; Since 1967, Democrats have served 28 years as governor, Republicans 22.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, it was said that Republicans were the Democrats’ best friend; while Republicans fought each other, Democrats were busy collecting votes.
On this eve of Labor Day, we recall how the party once junked a large part of its “base” in pursuit of another and managed to crack its own foundation at the same time.
In 1956, fractures had opened, then pulled apart with the first election of a Democratic governor in 20 years – the result of a bitter and vindictive GOP primary race between incumbent Gov. Fred Hall and challenger Warren Shaw, an attorney, former legislator and judge from Topeka.
Hall, for example, accused Shaw of taking kickbacks on state gasoline purchases, implying that another governor, Ed Arn, had looked the other way. Shaw called Hall a liar, denouncing the allegations as a “plain, unvarnished, unmitigated lie,” and said the governor was “a desperate little man.” That and more went on for weeks.
Meantime George Docking, a Lawrence Democrat who had lost to Hall two years earlier, looked on with amuse-ment. Shaw’s primary victory had been Pyrrhic, sapping both party and candidate. Docking won the general elec-tion by 95,000 votes. The Democrats were about to win even more.
Until the late 1950s, the Republican party had been organized labor’s party, the partnership a powerful force in state and national elections. Republicans had been the party of reform in Kansas and in Washington; they worked with progressive Democrats to establish a Federal Trade Commission, minimum wages for men and women, the prohibition of child labor, antitrust laws, and a federal income tax, and other reforms. Government, wherever nec-essary, became an agency of human welfare.
In Kansas, Republicans also were for hot lunches in schools, statewide polio immunization, new reservoirs for flood control and recreation. They sought, with Democrats, more paved roads, better highways, construction of the Turnpike, aid to schools, county health clinics and hospi-tals, help for the poor, the elderly.
Then things changed. On the ballot in 1958 was a right-to-work constitutional amendment that sparked savage controversy. The measure would prohibit anyone from being denied work for membership or non-membership in a labor union. It also outlawed the union shop in Kansas.
In his campaign for re-election, Docking avoided clear commitment on the question because Republicans had been so fanatical about it. The less he said about the matter (privately, he supported it), the more money Republicans would spend to get the amendment passed, and the less his Republican opponent, Clyde Reed, would be able to raise as a result.
Besides robbing Reed of Republican party energy and money, right-to-work had capped a four-year Republican effort to drive labor out of the Republican camp. A major-ity of labor union members had been Republicans until the late 1940s and early 1950s, and were native Kansans most likely to be Republicans. More, the labor leaders had always known who buttered their bread. They had expected Republicans to win, and they had stayed on the GOP band wagon.
Because Republicans had been the labor party in Kansas, big business denounced Republican Gov. Ed Arn (1951-55) as loudly as his successor, Fred Hall (1955-57). Labor had made great gains under Gov. Frank Carlson (1947-50) and Arn.
But big business ran the Republican party and big business, at the time, was not satisfied. After Hall’s bitter defeat in the 1956 primary, the right-to-workers sought to control the party. Labor had nowhere to go but to the Democrats. The issue would give the Democrats thousands of new dol-lars and voters.
In 1958, organized labor rolled up its sleeves for the expensive, back-breaking precinct work to help its cause, and voted Democratic as it never had before – and with remarkable results. Docking won reelection by more than 100,000 votes, 5,000 more than his margin two years ear-lier. It was the first time Kansas reelected a Democrat gov-ernor, and the first time in 24 years Kansas elected three Democratic (of six, then) congressmen.
The extent of victory included Republicans. Labor alone hadn’t elected the governor, but along with labor, Democrats kept much of the Republican vote they had earned in 1956.
The change had been cumulative, with gradual Democratic gains all over Kansas – in the House of Representatives, in the precincts, in courthouses. Experience in leadership and organization had followed.
Too many Republicans, especially those in control, failed to see the trends. They were disillusioned with Fred Hall, disgruntled with moderates among them and determined to defeat labor. In throwing them all out, they had lost two elections ‒ and organized labor, for good.
Today they are losing moderates, throwing them away. The party’s callous dismissal of Jim Barnett from its guber-natorial debates is shameful; he is a former state senator, the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2006, and for his shift to the middle he was treated as though he were a Taliban cleric.
The Republican pattern, its fratricidal lunging and careening, continues into its seventh decade. How will it play out this year?