Election night a month ago was not a good night for Kansas Democrats.
The party was pummeled down-ballot in the state, whether it be from less in-person campaigning or over-reliance on a suburban blue wave that never appeared.
But a big factor was the state GOP’s playbook of demonizing progressive, far left policies and tying them to candidates. Jake LaTurner repeatedly accused Michelle De La Isla of defunding the police in the 2nd Congressional race, despite it being false. Roger Marshall said Barbara Bollier embraced the Green New Deal in the U.S. Senate race, even if she didn’t.
The same arguments were seen down in state legislative races, too, and the GOP’s dominance begs the question: Is there a path forward in the state for "radical" progressive ideas?
"Overall for Democrats, I think that the agenda of progressives does not play as well — in swing districts, obviously," said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. "If Democrats want a future in Kansas, they have to realize that the voter who's wanting to decide their fate, usually votes Republican, and they are moderate to center right. They are not on board with (Vermont U.S. Sen) Bernie Sanders."
Already, national Dems after the election blamed ideas from progressive leaders Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, for the party’s under-performance.
In interviews with the Topeka Capital-Journal, some Kansas progressives agreed with Miller, realizing that messaging and approach may need to be changed up. But many others insist the answer is to push the Kansas Democratic Party further left — with plans to do so.
'Too polarized with branding’
Many progressives emphasized to The Capital-Journal that their ideas are actually popular in Kansas and nationwide, pointing to various polls showing majority support for things like increased minimum wage or Medicare for All.
But that doesn’t mean much electorally, said Russell Arben Fox, a political science professor at Friends University who is also a coordinator for Wichita’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter.
"I mean, yeah, there are people that have really come to see and come to accept the value and the truth of progressive ideas. That does not mean that is going to change the way they vote," said Fox.
Reaching out to voters who may believe in certain progressive ideas yet vote Republican needs to be done differently, some said.
Edward Rosson, formerly KS-02 director for the Progressive Turnout Project, acknowledged some framing could use improvement, calling the phrase "defund the police" a horrible marketing term. Creating mental health-focused first responder units and taking that off the police’s plate is reasonable to many, he said.
"What's the saying, Democrats are better at governing than they are at campaigning, and Republicans are better at campaigning than they are governing?" he said. "You ask people what Democrats’ policy platform is, it's a lot harder to convey, because Democrats have a policy for everything."
If done right, the way a progressive policy is expressed could boost its appeal. Fox referenced how Medicaid expansion is now more widely accepted in the state.
"The primary argument for Medicaid expansion in Kansas has been, almost from the beginning, we’ve got to save our rural hospitals," he said. "If you go around talking about how our health care is a human right," that won’t fly.
Rosson added he was frustrated with how Democratic candidates handled attacks from their opponents, often going on the defensive.
"We have to focus our messaging, as ‘Here's what we can do for you,’ rather than ‘What the other person says about me isn't true,’ " he said.
Not all progressive policies will be accepted by the majority, but the movement and the Democratic Party hasn’t done much focusing on those specific ideas that have crossover appeal, many said. Instead, candidates are "getting dragged down by everything else," said Rosson.
For Rosson, more focus should be on a higher minimum wage or marijuana legalization. For A.J. Stevens, a former Kansas House candidate involved with the Bernie Sanders-backed Our Revolution, it’s clean energy.
"I believe solar energy and wind energy is great for rural Kansas, which generally votes red. But we're not even listening to them," said Stevens. "We're getting too polarized with branding."
Indeed, there needs to be more outreach beyond the traditionally blue metropolitan areas, he added. An Our Revolution chapter was recently started in Hutchinson, and the organization is trying to get every county represented in the next two years.
"If we could find a candidate that's local, that has a strong persona and a great reputation in that community ... who truly believes in some of the progressive values, and they don't need to believe all ... they’ll win," Stevens said.
State Rep. Rui Xu, D-Westwood, also hopes and plans on the Kansas Democratic Party to do more outreach to rural areas. Considered to be one of the more left-leaning members of the Kansas Legislature, Xu identifies as a progressive and was endorsed by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, a national progressive figure.
"I think that we as elected officials and leaders have a different responsibility to go in unfriendlier territory," he said. "It's one thing to go to the county Democratic Party meetings once a month. It's another thing to go on the John Whitmer show, for example."
No rural county will flip blue anytime soon, but even reducing the margins of victory for the GOP will help progressive ideas greatly, said Rosson.
Xu believes pushing progressivism with a step-by-step approach is the way to go. His main goal first is getting the Democratic Party the majority it needs in the Statehouse.
"Until we get to 63 [seats], and we have the power of the agenda, and we have the power of the calendar, it doesn't matter to an extent how progressive the Democratic Party [is] in the houses. We can't bring up any policies," said Xu.
A leftward push
But the current problem isn’t actually the framing or messaging, according to Brent Welder, a congressional candidate in 2018 who primaried against U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas.
"If your candidates aren't supporting (progressive ideas) in the first place, then why on earth would you jump to a discussion as far as how they're talking about them, because they don't support them in the first place?" said Welder, whom Sanders endorsed and even campaigned for.
Kansas Democrats need to actively embrace progressive ideals, such as a $15 minimum wage, free education or Medicare for All, he argued. Otherwise, candidates will come off as muddled and unclear.
Bollier "put forth mostly messages that sounded very much like the messages the Republicans were putting forth. And when voters have a decision between a real Republican or somebody who isn't Republican but is embracing Republican messages, they're just going to go ahead and vote for the real Republican Party," said Welder.
Many noted that even if Democratic candidates explicitly disavowed progressive ideas, they would be attacked with those ideas anyway by the GOP.
Welder doesn’t see his own loss to the moderate Davids as proof that Kansas wasn’t ready for a progressive, saying he had the biggest lead in polls against the Republican incumbent.
"As far as the primary is concerned, I think there's messages from the national leaders of the party that wrongly suggest that the only way to win swing districts is to adopt messages that don't clearly define how Democrats want to help people," he said. "The way that message is delivered is through dark money, that gets generally funneled into the campaigns of corporatist candidates."
In short, many progressive Dems don’t even get the chance to test out their strength in a general election against Republicans, having been shot down in primaries heavily favored for moderates.
That obstacle doesn’t seem to faze one teenager who will arguably be the lone true progressive (the kind that unabashedly espouses the same ideals of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez) in the Kansas Legislature: Aaron Coleman.
The controversial representative-elect from Kansas City made headlines for a tweet early November, saying he would "call a hit" on Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly by setting up a progressive candidate against the moderate governor in the next primary.
But there’s more. He’s planning on getting progressive folks to primary against every member of the Wyandotte County Democratic delegation, saying he has three potential candidates already confirmed.
"I truly believe that change is only going to come when people start primarying the old guard of the Democratic Party," he said.
Coleman echoed the argument that Democrats need to lean into their progressive, populist roots. He believed that such policies would resonate beyond the progressive base without any change in marketing or framing.
While in office, he said he plans as much as possible to make the case for single-payer health care and legalizing cannabis.
He will face many obstacles, however, with state Democrats looking to unseat him. If unsuccessful, they’re still likely to shut him out of caucus.
Other progressives said that Coleman isn’t the right messenger, pointing to his history of revenge porn and alleged abuse.
"This is democracy. And if those people pick me to be the representative, then I'm the representative. I'm going to keep my head down and do my homework," Coleman responded. "I'm going to use my position to help support as many progressives and recruit progressives to office."
Many agreed to the fact that the only way forward is to have more progressives run in elections. There will be more progressives running, Welder said, and it’s a mission that he’s currently working on.
Beyond electoral reasons, the argument for leaning hard into progressive ideals has some merit, said Fox.
"Winning elections, that's only part of politics. Politics is also changing minds, changing the culture," he said. "And maybe you're not going to change the culture or change people's minds by trying really, really hard to find some kind of sweet spot where progressives, conservatives can agree."
He used the example of the U.S. Senate race, where Bollier even ran ads showcasing Trump voters who were also voting for her. But her gap behind Marshall — despite running the most expensive U.S. Senate campaign in state history — was disappointing.
"If in the end, a huge number of Kansas voters are just not going to be willing to vote for a Democrat to run for Senate, well then why not elect a Democrat who will actually go around and really emphasize progressive ideas?" said Fox.
That "lean left" strategy has shown some effects, Fox added. The Legislature is now more conservative partly because some moderate Republicans, frustrated with the GOP, have been convinced enough of some of these progressive ideas to join the Democrats.
And while some leftists may complain about them joining the party, they ultimately benefit progressives by adding numbers, he said. They make Rep. Sharice Davids possible, who even as a moderate, will at least vote for liberal policies.
Even the framing of progressive ideas can be affected by the same idea of leaning left, such as the word "socialism" becoming much more acceptable than in years past.
"Changing hearts and minds is long, difficult work," said Fox.