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In Kansas, a Troubling Fissure for GOP

Times Staff Writer

Mark Parkinson got his start in Republican politics at age 19, as a precinct committeeman. He served six years as a Republican state legislator, eventually becoming state Republican chairman.

But two weeks ago, Parkinson announced he was running for lieutenant governor -- as a Democrat. He said he no longer felt welcome in the increasingly conservative Kansas Republican Party.

Parkinson became the third Republican politician in the last nine months to startle this red state by switching to the minority party. The other two are targeting GOP incumbents in the attorney general’s office and in the state House of Representatives.

Political observers say the fracture within the Kansas GOP may foreshadow the future for the national party. The division between moderates and social conservatives is expected to define the contest for the party’s 2008 presidential nomination.

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Kansas has been at the forefront of the culture wars that helped the Republican Party gain national dominance this decade. Twice in the last seven years, its Board of Education voted to teach alternatives to evolution in public schools. Voters in 2005 overwhelmingly approved a ban on gay marriage. The state’s attorney general last year subpoenaed medical records of abortion patients.

“A lot of people in Kansas are feeling lost right now,” said Parkinson, 48, who was invited onto the ticket by popular Democratic incumbent Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. “I decided I’d rather spend time building great universities than wondering if Charles Darwin was right.”

Moderates who emphasize economic development and religious conservatives concerned with limiting abortion and gay rights have battled for more than a decade for control of the Kansas Republican Party, which dominates the state with 48% of registered voters. The remaining voters are split evenly between Democratic and Independent registration.

In 1994, when the GOP won both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, a group of religious conservatives in Kansas ousted the moderates who ran the party. The intramural squabbling grew so great that four years later, the then-chair of the party unsuccessfully ran against the moderate Republican governor.

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Today, websites for some county branches of the party instruct on how to identify RINOs -- Republicans In Name Only -- and keep them from gaining influence. Social conservatives have solidified their power over the party and are especially influential in low-turnout primaries and local elections. Increasing numbers of moderates like Parkinson are saying they’ve had enough.

Alan Cigler, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, compares the intra-party turmoil to the national schism between business-friendly moderate Republicans and cultural conservatives over illegal immigration.

“The state is kind of dividing up,” Cigler said. “It’s the Christian right versus the business interests of the Republican party. That’s what Kansas is all about now.”

The Kansas Republican Party, Cigler said, “has been ahead of the curve.”

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Ron Freeman, executive director of the state GOP, says the recent defections are due to the personal ambitions of the politicians, not because of any ideological shift.

“To say it’s gone way to the right, that’s not a fair analysis,” Freeman said, noting that two of the party’s four statewide officeholders back abortion rights.

One of those officials, Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, is opposed in the GOP primary by a candidate opposed to abortion rights. Another moderate, Secretary of State Ron Thornburg, is facing a primary challenge from a female GOP state senator who was reported in 2001 as saying family values began to erode when women got the right to vote.

Some Kansas voters say they feel shut out. “I’m absolutely fed up with the conservative Republicans,” said Richard Meidinger, a retired physician in Topeka. “All the abortion stuff, gay marriage stuff doesn’t belong in the legislative debate.”

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Martin Hawver has a name for lifelong members of the GOP like Meidinger: “failed Republicans.” The editor of a respected Kansas political newsletter, Hawver’s Capitol Report, Hawver counts himself among their number, occasionally doing the unthinkable and voting Democratic.

“It used to be you could never go wrong with voting for who the Republicans nominated,” Hawver said. “But that’s changing now. People are a little uneasy.”

Cindy Neighbor is one of them. A veteran member of her local school board and a moderate, Neighbor, 57, unsuccessfully ran against a conservative for an open seat in the statehouse in 2000. She narrowly lost, but won in 2002.

Neighbor wasn’t long for Kansas Republican politics, however. She backed an education bill that could have raised taxes, and party conservatives told her there would be retaliation. She lost the next primary to the same representative she’d ousted two years earlier. Another moderate Republican who’d co-sponsored her bill -- Bill Kassebaum, the son of former Kansas U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker -- was ousted at the same time.

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Now Neighbor’s running for her old seat -- as a Democrat.

“It was, ‘If you don’t like this -- goodbye,’ ” she said of her struggles to stay in the Republican Party. As a Democrat, Neighbor added, “you can still have your ideas and you’re accepted.”

Paul Morrison, the 51-year-old district attorney of the state’s largest county, also switched to the Democratic Party. The laconic Morrison, who served as Johnson County’s top prosecutor for 17 years, said he’d never been particularly partisan but thought the Democratic Party was “a better fit” for challenging state Atty. Gen. Phill Kline.

An outspoken evangelical, Kline has gained national attention for subpoenaing records of patients who had abortions at two Kansas clinics, as well as for saying that state social workers and psychologists are required to report teenagers who admit they have sex so law enforcement can conduct child abuse investigations. Morrison criticized Kline for “forging a public policy that fits a narrow agenda that most people don’t agree with.”

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Whitney Watson, a spokesman for Kline, dismissed Morrison’s challenge and noted that all of Kansas’ county sheriffs, including some Democrats, had endorsed Kline. “It’s unfortunate that Mr. Morrison believes that protecting Kansas children ... is a peripheral issue,” Watson said.

When Morrison announced he was challenging Kline last fall, Parkinson, a longtime friend, endorsed him. Parkinson said he figured it was the end of his political career. So the former GOP chairman and legislator was surprised to get a call from the Sebelius campaign exploring whether he’d join the governor’s ticket.

Sebelius, whose Cabinet includes a former Republican governor, said she contacted Parkinson because she knew him from his time in the Legislature, not because of his party. Democrats in Kansas, she said, have a natural inclination to reach across party lines.

“Even if 100% of Democrats vote for something,” Sebelius said, “it won’t happen unless you can draw out Republicans.”

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