A Look Ahead: Reproductive Rights in the 2014 Kansas Gubernatorial Race

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Commentary Politics

A Look Ahead: Reproductive Rights in the 2014 Kansas Gubernatorial Race

Kari Ann Rinker

In a state known for regressive and harmful social policies and a proliferation of socially conservative Democratic electeds, will the Democrats produce another “me-too Democrat" or a truly progressive candidate who will be the antithesis of Brownback?

Republican Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s polling is in the dumps, showing him with a mere 36 percent approval rating. In fact, only three governors in the entire nation have lower job approval ratings than him. Though polling numbers do not always indicate whether a candidate will get elected (or re-elected), many people across the Heartland who have been fighting Brownback’s devastating policies are heartened by the numbers.

Advocates of public education, higher education, the arts, union rights, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, gun safety, poverty, and reproductive health all have found themselves on the defense in Brownback’s Kansas. These people—with honest concerns about their state and its futurefight tirelessly to protect the well-being of Kansas’ citizenry. 

Meanwhile, Brownback and his legislative allies seem most concerned with eliminating the state income tax and protecting the interests of big business allies, most prominently the Koch family and the American Legislative Exchange Council. These policies, presented as “business-friendly” and “job-building” come at great expense to the most vulnerable Kansans and have resulted in a downgraded bond rating for the state.

As the 64 percent of Kansas who are unsatisfied with Brownback eagerly await the announcement of alternatives to the status quo in the 2014 governor’s race, the Kansas Democratic Party (KDP) is holding its cards close to its chest. The party steadfastly refuses to confirm or deny recent speculation about who Brownback’s challenger might be. Despite the governor’s dismal polling numbers, any challenger is going to face a name-recognition hurdle in the race, and will have to overcome both fundraising and party affiliation deficits. While Democrats enjoy a lead in party affiliations at the national level, Kansas conservatives continue to hold a substantial political advantage in the state.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Voters who count abortion rights as an important issue wonder if the KDP will produce a candidate who represents their ideals. In a state known for regressive and harmful social policies and a proliferation of socially conservative Democratic electeds, some also question whether or not the Democrats will produce another “me-too Democrat” or a truly progressive candidate who will be the antithesis of Brownback.

The KDP has produced the likes of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebellius, as well as former Kansas Gov. Joan Finney, whose anti-choice views ran so deep she actually spoke at an Operation Rescue rally during the height of the Summer of Mercy. The Kansas House Democratic Caucus has consistently had one-third of its membership cast anti-choice votes, with some members even sponsoring extreme legislation. The disdain for equality that some of these Democrats hold stands as part of the public record.

Recently, KDP’s new political director called a roundtable meeting of 20 Wichita women to discuss “women’s issues.” At the meeting, some participants voiced concern about the anti-choice voting record of Josh Svaty, former secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, who at the time was being considered as a potential Democratic Party candidate for governor. (He has since said he is “not even thinking about” running.)

The women at the meeting were much happier with the record of another potential candidate, Democratic House Minority Leader Paul Davis, who holds a solid pro-choice voting record.

The other potential candidate, Jill Docking, was also viewed favorably. Although Docking doesn’t have a voting record to review, she is known locally to show strong support for reproductive choice. Docking recently launched a blog in which she is critical of Brownback and his policies. She and Brownback have a history; she ran against him in a 1996 Kansas senate race, during which he employed the use of anti-Semitic campaign calls. Docking’s name comes up frequently on the “wish list” of Kansas Democratic gubernatorial candidates. But as one meeting attendee remarked, “If you believe that Jill Docking is going to run for governor, you might as well believe in the tooth fairy.”

Beyond the discussion of the merits of these potential candidates, there was a strong and definite consensus that the “anybody but Brownback” candidate would not suffice, and an anti-choice candidate would be strongly rejected. The traditional “big tent” model of red-state Democratic Party politics has had a perceived benefit of attracting a variety of voters and not being exclusionary, a strategy that has not proven successful in recent years and may, in fact, be of some detriment to the struggling political party.

The takeaway from Texas’ recent reproductive rights battle is that taking a public stand for red-state women is good for red-state Democrats; there are financial benefits as well as the benefits of an energized base. Defeating anti-choice, draconian incumbents in a red state is no easy feat, but hiding from the issue of reproductive choice is offensive to the women who live in these states.

The women at the Wichita roundtable determined that a good start would be to openly support reproductive choice in the KDP platform. Currently, the party includes in its platform some vague language about equal rights and diversity and pay equity, but not a peep about reproductive rights. By comparison, the national Democratic Party platform clearly addresses the issue in this statement:

Protecting A Woman’s Right to Choose. The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay.

When KDP’s political director, Kerry Gooch, was asked at the Wichita women’s roundtable, “Does the Kansas Democratic Party support reproductive choice?” his response was, “I believe we do, but I guess that’s how you define it. It is open to interpretation.” When asked if KDP supports unions, his answer was a much less vague “Yes.”

While the KDP is “interpreting” women’s constitutional rights, the Kansas Republican Party knows exactly where it stands on the issue, as its platform includes language from the national Republican Party platform supporting a “Human Life Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution.

Women are not one-dimensional. Other issues brought up during the roundtable included tax fairness, jobs and wages, voter identification laws, child care, separation of church and state, support of public education, gun control laws, and candidate selection, support, and training. “Women’s issues” are nothing more than people’s issues, after all.

That said, being able to decide whether or not to have a child is of fundamental importance to women’s health, identity, privacy, and personal and economic—as well as the community’s—well-being. A party that professes to support human dignity should embrace, not avoid, talking about pregnancy and choice. No woman should be written off, no matter where she lives. Let’s hope that the Kansas Democratic Party keeps this in mind when considering its chosen candidate for the next governor of Kansas and also when considering the ideals it wishes to foster and promote from within its ranks.