Kansans chose divided government in 2018, electing a Democratic governor and a conservative-tilting Republican legislature. The facts: 57 percemt of Kansas voters did not support Kris Kobach. And many Republicans in the legislature, including some noted conservatives, represent districts where most voters supported Laura Kelly. These Republicans who find themselves caught between their voters and their own politics offer a great test of how representative democracy works in Kansas.
Let’s look at some numbers. The Kansas House has 125 districts. Of those, Kelly won 65 districts and Kobach won 60. Of 40 Senate districts, Kelly won 21 and Kobach won 19. Independent Greg Orman won no districts.
Democrats have it easy here. Every Democrat in the legislature represents a district that Kelly won. That means they can support her agenda and generally represent the desires that their voters expressed last November.
The math is not as kind to Republicans. Ten Republicans in the Senate and 24 in the House represent districts that Kelly won. This includes notable conservatives like former Kobach campaign manager J.R. Claeys in Salina, Brenda Landwehr in Wichita, and Mary Pilcher-Cook in Shawnee. It also includes much of Republican leadership. All four Senate Republican leaders — Susan Wagle, Jeff Longbine, Jim Denning, and Mike Peterson — represent Kelly districts. House Speaker Ron Ryckman represents a Kelly district. House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins escapes joining the Kelly district club by less than 1 percent, though only 46 percent of his voters supported Kobach.
What does this mean? At the core of representative democracy is representation, meaning to act on behalf of others as an elected representative. Let’s imagine that you are Senate President Susan Wagle, and you represent her district where 53 percemt of voters chose Kelly. Who do you represent? Your district broadly? Only voters who supported you? Just your party? Just yourself and your opinions? Or, if you are considering a US Senate run as she is, is your attention on Republican primary voters statewide?
Realistically, different legislators see their roles as representatives differently. To be sure, those politicians were elected in their own right and it would be unrealistic to expect Republicans in Kelly districts to accept her agenda without question. We are a democracy of checks and balances. But it is also unrealistic for them to dismiss her agenda on partisan grounds if her leadership is what voters in their districts chose.
To make divided government work, there must be compromise between the personal agendas of politicians and the desires of the voters they represent. That is equally true for Kelly and Republicans. Kelly made her agenda clear in 2018, and voters put the ball in the Republican court by electing her. So how will Republicans react? Will they double down on Sam Brownback-ish policies in areas like taxes, spending, education, or Medicaid expansion? Will legislative leaders and committee chairs use their power to deny hearings on proposals that they personally dislike but which Kansans broadly support in polls?
Kansas voters will decide in 2020 how this political marriage is working. Kelly will not be on the ballot, though voters can reward or punish Republicans for their actions. But accountability does not just magically happen. Voters will only reward Democrats if Democrats recruit serious candidates and contest winnable districts. And the 57% of Kansas voters who voted against returning to Brownback policies in 2018 should not assume that their job as citizens is done just because Kelly won. Complacency like that lets politicians ignore you, not represent you.
— Patrick R. Miller is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas. Kate Davis provided data assistance. Data are from the Open Elections Data Project.