Johnson County’s municipal races are supposed to be non-partisan. Yet with only four days before the election, a text blast labeling Democrats who are running for city council, community college trustee and water board as “socialist radicals” has become a hot topic of discussion this week.
The text, with a “PATRIOT ALERT” heading, was received by some Democrats Wednesday. It reads: “Liberal Democrats are threatening to take over the Johnson County municipal government! City Council, JCCC Trustees, even the Water Board are endangered by Socialist radicals!” It goes on to provide a link to the county election office’s information on advance voting, which will be open a variety of hours at seven locations through Saturday.
The text continues: “As supporters of President Trump, it is *crucial* we vote NOW,” and ends urging recipients to visit the county GOP for “our list of candidates.” The link takes readers to the Johnson County Republican page listing the Republicans running in various local elections.
County Republicans say they weren’t involved with the text, and two leaders contacted said they had not received it. An automated message machine picks up when the number displayed at the top is called, but there’s no indication who owns the number. A reverse lookup check online indicates the number may be from Hiawatha, Kan.
Greg Shelton, vice chair of the county Democrats, said that’s no surprise. Groups seeking to influence elections can buy a service to send out text blasts from an anonymous number. “It’s a classic tactic of a lot of dark money groups because it helps them remain anonymous,” he said.
The fact that some registered Democrats have received the text could mean that it went out to a large number of phones and wasn’t narrowly enough targeted to filter out Democrats, he said. But Shelton also noted that the timing after the Republicans posted their list was an “interesting coincidence.”
County GOP Chairman Dave Myres said neither the state nor county party had anything to do with the text. “I heard it’s going to mostly Democrats? Makes me suspect a possible political dirty trick,” he wrote in an email to the Post. But he did not elaborate on what he meant.
City and most county races are supposed to be non-partisan, meaning there’s no party listing next to the names on the ballot. But the parties have been involved to various degrees anyway. Both parties have published their recommendations for various offices. That usually amounts to listing who the candidates are who are registered party members. The Republicans have posted a voting guide on their website, and noted which local candidates are registered Republicans in emails to party members. The Johnson County Democratic Party has a guide on its website as well, and has paid to print and distribute fliers noting which local candidates are registered Democrats.
The issue of party support has been growing increasingly touchy in the past year. County Commissioner Mike Brown took issue with Democratic support in the commission races last year and has vowed to make partisan commission elections a topic when the county reviews its charter in 2021.
This year, the kind of polarizing talk often seen more in national and state races has made its way into some local races as well. In Roeland Park, council candidate A.J. Cameron deleted his Twitter account after it became known he retweeted content from extremists and conspiracy theorists, for instance. In Merriam, a council candidate Whitney Yadrich has been labeled a “leftist agenda plant” by some supporters of her opponent.
Beth French, vice chair of the county GOP, said she is dismayed by the hyper partisanship she’s seen. Language like that in the text is not something she’d ever use as representative of the party, because, “I think the parties are divided enough.”
“We need to start getting along with people. People have to start talking and finding a happy place to get along,” she said.
Shelton said he has no problem with Republicans putting out a list of their favorites in local elections. He hopes they will disavow the text, though, because people running for municipal office are good neighbors who have an investment in their homes and in the community.
Nevertheless he said he doesn’t expect anyone to take ownership. “It’s sort of the world we live in,” he said.