Moderates frustrated by the results of this year’s Kansas legislative session — which saw attempts to move the state sharply to the right on issues from gun control to gay rights to collective bargaining — had a group therapy session of sorts Thursday at the MainStream Coalition’s final legislative forum of the year.
Sparked by moderator Stephen Steigman of KCUR, a lively panel of political scientists and the state advocacy director of the ACLU dissected the outcomes of year’s statehouse deliberations, and made some prognostications about how the political landscape may — or may not — shift in the coming year.
Highlighting polling data that suggests Gov. Sam Brownback has both high name recognition and low approval ratings, the panelists concurred that Brownback was vulnerable in his bid for reelection.
“It’s clear [Paul] Davis is in the ballgame,” said Washburn political science professor Bob Beatty.
Burdett Loomis, the well known University of Kansas political science professor, concurred, saying Democrat Paul Davis finds himself in an unexpectedly competitive position at this point in the elections cycle as moderate Republicans become increasingly disenchanted with what he characterized as the “right wing or tea party right” movement that had moved the Kansas Republican party outside the mainstream.
“These people are not conservatives,” he said. “We had real conservatives in Kansas for years, and they governed from a slightly right of center position.”
Beatty’s Washburn colleague Mark Peterson, the chair of the university’s political science department, told the crowd of around 200 that he felt the fate of the gubernatorial election rested largely on the turnout of women to the polls this fall.
The panel also commented on a host of issues that came into the limelight during the course of the past several months in Topeka.
Loomis delivered a sharp criticism of the state’s new social media policy, approved by the Board of Regents in the wake of the David Guth/NRA twitter controversy. Loomis said that Guth had made “an intemperate remark, a stupid remark, [something Guth] would take back if he could,” but that the new policy gives the university broad and nebulous powers to dismiss a professor for social media conduct that is simply deemed “not in the best interest of the university.”
The worry is that such a policy could cast a chilling shadow on speech. But, Loomis said, it also casts a pall over the state that makes it less attractive to talented professionals. A professor looking to take a job in Kansas, he said, “might look at the state and say, you’ve got this great medical center, the [University of Kansas Hospital] Cancer Center is booming. And then you hear about the social media policy and the lack of due process rights for teachers, and you think twice.”
Beatty took time to comment on the new gun bill that supersedes any local gun laws regulating the open carry of firearms. The notion that the new state law violates the principal of local control was erroneous, he said, pointing to the principals of a federal government system.
“While it is amusing to suggest that the Republicans would like to have their cake and eat it to, it doesn’t actually work that way,” Beatty said. But, he added, just because the legislature has the ability to pass such sweeping laws doesn’t mean it should.
“The notion that a fairly dedicated group of Republicans or Libertarians can determine what’s appropriate [for every community in the state] with one edict is a little far out on the sanity spectrum,” he said.