Many progressives trade in stereotypes about Kansas with childlike pride, writes Sarah Smarsh. But to use geography to separate the righteous from the scourge is dangerously simplistic
by Sarah Smarsh in Wichita, KansasWichita, Kansas
The division that threatens to split this country in two is not between red and blue states, or between rural and urban areas – it is between the way we discuss politics and the realities of American lives, none of which fit into tidy categories. Contrary to popular narratives, you can be a progressive populist, a wealthy and college-educated Trump supporter, a rural laborer of color, a provincial urbanite, an open-minded midwesterner.
And, as first-time Democratic political candidate James Thompson proved this month in Kansas, you can give conservative Republicans a run for their money as an army veteran, a rifle-owning marksman, and a civil rights attorney who has fought on behalf of black victims of police brutality. Whose first college major was theater, and who named his daughter Liberty.
All at once. In a “red” state.
When conservative congressman Mike Pompeo vacated his Kansas seat to head the CIA earlier this year, conventional political wisdom said the special election to replace him was in the bag for the Republican state treasurer, Ron Estes. The district had gone for Trump by 27 points and is home to Koch Industries, the global, $100bn conservative moneybag whose famous family routes hundreds of millions of dollars to conservative candidates across the country.
But a small band of prairie progressives saw something else: Kansas Democratshad picked up 13 seats in the state legislature in 2016, while moderate Republicans had unseated conservatives.
They saw people angry at far-right governor Sam Brownback’s destruction of the state economy. They saw racially diverse Wichita. They saw the same people who twice elected previous governor Kathleen Sebelius, who went on to design the Affordable Care Act as Obama’s health secretary. They saw a state where socialist Bernie Sanders won the 2016 Democratic caucus. They saw a district that had, perhaps, gone for Trump less because they agreed with him than because he was a wrecking ball who had acknowledged their existence.
Thompson, who has lived in Kansas for 20 years, saw it too. His grassroots campaign quickly aligned itself with post-Trump resistance movements while focusing on jobs, education and veteran issues.
The underdogs canvassed to such effect that Republicans put an estimated $150,000 toward heading them off with an abortion-themed smear TV ad and robo-calls from Trump and Mike Pence. Ted Cruz went to Kansas to rally the base. The president bleated an Estes endorsement on Twitter for good measure.
Democrats, well … the day before the election, they paid for some calls.
They were investing in Georgia’s sixth congressional district (which soon would be a two-point miss for the Democratic challenger) but not in Kansas – a poor use of resources according to strategists, apparently. Even the party’s state organization refused to pony up $20,000 for a mailer.
On the homestretch, it was liberal blog Daily Kos that drummed up close to $250,000 in personal donations for Thompson from across the country. Our Revolution, the organizational offshoot of Bernie Sanders’ presidential run, endorsed the campaign as well.
Ultimately, for the scrappy, local progressives who energized southern Kansans across party lines, it was victory in loss: Thompson came within seven points of winning a US House seat that has been held by Republicans for a quarter of a century. He also turned Sedgwick County, the state’s most populous area, blue for the first time since 1996. Such a swing would unseat Republican representatives in more than 100 districts.
James Thompson, or how to destroy a pundit’s stereotype
National polls and pundits, struggling to reconcile their ideas about a “deep red” area with the hard numbers before them, seemed more astonished by the Kansas special-election results than interested in learning something from them.
It is likely that most members of that chattering class have never lived in Kansas –which may be filed somewhere in their brains as a red square rather than 82,000 square miles of 3 million people. (One Washington Post congressional reporter dismissed the results for being in a “rural” district – never mind that Wichita is the largest city in the state and a manufacturing hub that probably built the airplane he was tweeting from.)
Around the turn of the millennium, cable news networks came to a consensus that “red” meant Republican and “blue” meant Democrat. Since then, most of us have settled into a destructive habit of envisioning entire states as political monoliths, our country two disparate sociopolitical lands.
We’ve seen this sort of bifurcation myth before: during the civil war, northern whites were the good guys, southern whites the bad. In fact, most whites in the north were on the right side of history because of where they happened to live, and they too benefited from slavery and white supremacy.
Yet, with our notoriously short-term American political memory, we have no problem again constructing two pat sides: educated urban America and socially backwards “Trump country”.
I am not surprised by Thompson’s near-win in the district I know well. My family has farmed wheat crops, raised and butchered livestock, worked on factory assembly lines, and hammered together buildings there for five generations. I find the area to be more apolitical than conservative, more concerned with personal freedom than with telling women what to do with their bodies or transgender kids where to pee.
Most Kansans I know loathed extreme conservative Sam Brownback before the 2014 gubernatorial election, yet he eked out re-election. I suspect the state legislature’s swing to the right to be a symptom of ignored moderates and liberals staying home, while extremists rallied social conservatives to the polls in local elections.
Like “blue” people find themselves called to do in every “red” state, meanwhile, many Kansans were resisting when resisting wasn’t cool.
As a professor at a state university and a fundraiser for nonprofit social-service agencies, I have rallied with them during the Brownback era – our state portender of the national Trump era.
I have seen Kansas small bookstore owners set up write-your-representative tables and pay for the postage.
I have seen Kansas social workers drive pregnant, poor teenage girls to abortion clinics.
I have seen Kansas artists paint murals about peace on walls built before the civil war.
I have seen my former college students paint rainbow stripes across a residence next to the hatemongering Westboro Baptist church in Topeka and call it Equality House in defiant celebration of LGBT Kansans.
When Brownback demolished state funding for the arts during his first term, the New York Times reported, a small-town Kansas woman – who could have chosen to move – kept her art gallery financially afloat by canceling custodial services and scrubbing the toilets herself.
To render such efforts invisible with a single stroke of red is an insult I won’t abide.
‘Don’t expect anybody from the outside to come in and help us’
About an hour after the special election was called for the Republican candidate, Thompson’s campaign manager – Colin Curtis, a 27-year-old native of Kansas City – spoke with me via phone from a Wichita bar. He had just sent Thompson and his family home after the concession speech, but morale was high. Like a proper midwesterner, Curtis – who was a toddler the last time a Democrat won the seat – abstained from making a single complaint.
Much of the left’s national social-media sphere, however, had already devolved into a whine-fest. Thompson could have won if neoliberals in Washington had given a damn! The party is useless! The party is on track – Georgia’s sixth is where it’s at because national strategy is all about suburbs! Kansas is a bunch of idiots anyway! Curtis said flying under the national radar had been to their benefit for most of the campaign.
“As soon as it became about national politics and Donald Trump and Mike Pence and Ted Cruz,” Curtis said, “the [Republican party] was just able to use that to ramp up their people.”
But Curtis dispelled a theory going around that national Democrats stayed away because they were concerned their brand might be toxic to Thompson’s cause in Kansas.
“We would have welcomed them,” he said. “There were never any discussions like, ‘Don’t get involved, you guys won’t help us’.”
The day after the election, Thompson – sounding tired but upbeat, having just announced that he will vie for the House seat again in the 2018 midterms – said it had been just as Curtis predicted.
“[Curtis] told me at the very beginning, ‘Look, don’t expect anybody from the outside to come in and help us’,” Thompson said.
He admitted it was frustrating to be written off by potential funders and boosters due to the perception that the race was an unwinnable waste.
“I got very sick of this terminology of ‘political capital’,” Thompson said. “Why won’t this person send out a tweet? Well, they don’t want to spend that ‘political capital’. Pardon my language: that’s bullshit.”
“I understand maybe not wanting to invest a bunch of money,” he said. “But the idea that somebody can’t send out a tweet or do something to help somebody to me is ridiculous.”