For the past few years in Topeka, Shawnee Mission area Reps. Linda Gallagher and Melissa Rooker cast vote after vote in alignment with the values promoted by the moderate MainStream Coalition — from gun control to education funding to LGBTQ+ rights — often bucking the majority of their Republican caucus in the process.
Earlier this month, though, voters opted to replace Rooker and Gallagher with Rui Xu and Susan Ruiz, Democrats who share essentially the same positions on those hot-button issues. And some MainStream leaders are wondering why.
In the group’s weekly post on Monday, a piece entitled “What’s the Moderate with Kansas?”, MainStream renewed its call for a commitment to the concept of political moderation, and warned that some local races had witnessed “a disheartening trend towards extremism among liberals” that hadn’t been seen before.
“Legislators who had a 100% record of voting for women, gun sense, reasonable taxes, education spending, healthcare expansion, and LGBTQ+ issues were demonized and ‘kicked out’ simply because they had an (R) behind their name,” reads the piece. “Some were attacked beyond the pale, their service ignored, their record tarnished with innuendo.”
MainStream has a long history of criticizing hardline conservatives who have gained a good deal of influence over Republican politics in the state — and the group has become a target of criticism by conservatives, itself. But, MainStream said in the post, this election marked the first time it had faced such attacks from the left.
“Even to us here at MainStream, habituated as we are to being called ‘communists’ by the extremists on the right, it was a shock to be called ‘fascists’ by these extremists on the left,” reads the post.
MainStream Executive Director Brandi Fisher said the election cycle that saw the losses of several moderate legislators — both Democrats and Republicans — had the organization fretting about the future of the moderate cause.
Democrats respond to charges of extremism
But some Democrats balked at the group’s assertion that challenges to candidates like Rooker and Gallagher were led by an extremist bent in the party.
In response to the article, the Johnson County Democrats issued a statement saying that while they “welcome MainStream’s role in our political discourse…the suggestion that competition in our electoral process is somehow detrimental to our democracy is simply wrong. We are proud of all our Democratic candidates who worked hard to achieve their goal of serving their fellow citizens in elected offices up and down the ballot in 2018.”
Sollie Flora, an active member of the Johnson County Democrats, took particular issue with MainStream’s apparent contention that party shouldn’t matter. Flora had posted a lengthy Twitter thread on charges that there was “extremism on both sides” during the run up to the election. Following the publication of the blog post this week, she posted another string.
At issue, Flora said, is MainStream’s apparent contention that party shouldn’t ever matter.
“I appreciate what MainStream historically has tried to do, but I think they’re missing the mark when they’re saying we can ignore what the party is doing,” Flora said. “I think the reason that we have parties is because both voters and candidates think a party has meaning. A rational informed voter, even if they agree with the majority of someone’s voting record, can look at party affiliation and say, I don’t agree with what the Republican party is doing locally or at the state level or nationally, and so I’m going to make a different choice.”
(Flora sits on the Mission city council, but stressed that her comments reflected her individual views, and were not made in her capacity as an elected official).
Rooker said she heard about voters’ discomfort with the Republican standard bearer when she was going door to door. In a race that was ultimately only separated by 121 votes, Rooker believes that her party affiliation likely cost her the seat.
“If I had received the votes of everyone who looked me in the eye and said, ‘It’s not you, you’ve done a good job — it’s about Trump and we’re voting against Trump,’ I would have won the election,” Rooker said. “I don’t think it was personal. I think it was a group of opportunists who capitalized on the mood of the country.”
Rooker believes that the loss of moderates in the statehouse will lead to a much more polarized set of caucuses when the session convenes in January — and she sees that as a threat to getting things done.
“The only way to effectively govern is to talk to people who you don’t naturally agree with,” she said. “You have to start with a conversation about what you can agree on and how you can work through the differences. In flipping a red seat blue, what we lost was a local opportunity to have those conversations.”