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Stampede of the Rinos or Ain't Nuthin' the Matter With Kansas

by Pete Ross

Paul Harris of the Guardian Unlimited Observer reports on the resignation of the Kansas GOP Chairman Mark Parkinson and his candidacy for Deputy Governor --- as a Democrat. Writes Harris:

His defection to the Democrats sent shockwaves through a state deeply associated with the national Republican cause and the evangelical conservatives at its base. Nor was it just Parkinson's leave-taking that left Republicans spluttering with rage and talking of betrayal. It was that as he left Parkinson lambasted his former party's obsession with conservative and religious issues such as gay marriage, evolution and abortion.

Sitting in his headquarters, the new Democrat is sticking to his guns. Republicans in Kansas, he says, have let down their own people. 'They were fixated on ideological issues that really don't matter to people's everyday lives. What matters is improving schools and creating jobs,' he said. 'I got tired of the theological debate over whether Charles Darwin was right.'

Could this be a harbinger of a nation-wide trend of substance-hungry Republicans becoming Democrats? Maybe, suggests Harris:

...in a swath of heartland states such as Kansas, Democrats are seeing the first signs of their party's rebirth. Parkinson is not alone in switching sides. In Virginia, Jim Webb, a one-time Reagan official, is seeking to be a Democrat senator. In South Carolina, top Republican prosecutor Barney Giese has defected after a spat with conservatives. Back in Kansas another top Republican, Paul Morrison, also joined the Democrats and is challenging a Republican to be the state attorney-general.

...Parkinson's defection encouraged other moderates to abandon a party controlled by right-wing religious zealots. In political terms they are called Rinos, or Republicans in Name Only. If enough Rinos desert, the strict ideologues in the party are likely to drift further right.

Yeah, we know, this is largely anecdotal. But significant Rino defections have also been documented in recent polls (see Alan Abramowitz's May 17 EDM post, for example). And if a former state GOP chairman is too through with his party, something probably is going on. Harris sees the trend as being influenced by high-performing Dems, in this case Kansas Governor Kathleen Sibelius :

One of the key reasons Kansas Democrats are in fighting mood is their governor, Kathleen Sibelius. Sibelius's vote represents an island of Democratic blue in a sea of Republican red on the political map, and she has impressed by reaching the middle-ground voters in a startlingly successful first term. Shunning the hot-button social issues, she has focused on education, jobs and health. This has earned her approval ratings touching 68 per cent in a state that was overwhelmingly pro-Bush in 2004.

Sibelius has cracked the political holy grail: persuading heartland Republicans to vote Democrat. 'Her style works here, and then bringing over Parkinson to the Democrats has been the coup of all coups,' said Professor Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University near Topeka.

Sibelius appears to be a serious comer. True, Kansas Dems still face an uphill struggle. But they have a fighting spirit, well-expressed in a resonating slogan for their '06 campaigns, "Hope in the Heartland" --- may it be heard in all states.