LENEXA, Kan. — State Senator Dinah Sykes, a Democrat for three whole weeks, told the retirement home residents that she had felt ignored by Republican leaders. She said that she remained a political moderate. She promised that her views on policy hadn’t changed when she quit the Republican Party, only the letter beside her name.
But just like America, and just like Kansas, the roomful of Ms. Sykes’s constituents was divided.
“You flipped — I’m disenfranchised,” said Kent Crippin, 82. “And I’ve been a Republican all my life.”
Another man told her, “I still feel betrayed, and I won’t make the mistake of voting for you again.”
Ms. Sykes choked back tears as she responded. “If I’m not re-elected, that’s O.K., but I did what I felt was right,” she said. “I’m sorry I’ve hurt you.”
Ms. Sykes is one of four state lawmakers in Kansas who switched allegiances last month, walking away from the Republican Party that has controlled this state’s Capitol and dominated its politics for years. The defections won’t affect control of the Legislature — Republicans have plenty of votes to spare in Topeka — but they reveal a larger problem for the party as 2020 approaches, and one that reaches well beyond Kansas.
The departures reflect a political shift in suburban areas of Kansas, a state that surprised political experts by electing a Democrat as governor in November. That shift is part of a larger realignment in traditionally Republican suburbs across the country, where long-marginalized Democrats are now ascendant and where voters who are upset with President Trump, especially women, have punished some moderate Republican candidates.
All four of the lawmakers who announced in December that they were becoming Democrats are women, and all four are from Johnson County, just outside Kansas City, Mo. They each said that distaste for Mr. Trump and unease with Kansas’ increasingly conservative Republican Party contributed to the decision to leave.
Centrist Republican lawmakers in Johnson County have found themselves facing a painful choice: Leave the state’s dominant party and alienate loyal voters, or remain Republican despite clear shifts to the left in their districts.
“I’ve got constituents saying, ‘We’re cool with you, but how can you be associated with this?’” said State Representative Stephanie Clayton, describing the pressure she faced before leaving the Republican Party in December, a month after she was re-elected as a Republican.
Ms. Clayton, who first registered with her former party as a teenager and once led a local Young Republicans chapter, said there had been a “tremendous amount of energy being spent on my part saying, ‘I’m not one of those Republicans.’”
Twenty percent of all Kansans live in Johnson County. It is quintessential suburbia: Big houses, bigger parking lots, low crime. The county has always been more politically mixed than Kansas’ bright-red rural areas, but it has been friendly turf for Republicans, especially those bringing messages of fiscal prudence and limited government. In 2012, Mitt Romney carried Johnson County by 17 percentage points.
But even as Mr. Trump has expanded Republicans’ reach into some areas, he has become a liability for the party in some well-educated, affluent suburbs. In Johnson County, where the majority of residents over 25 have a college degree and the median household income exceeds $80,000, Mr. Trump beat Hillary Clinton by just 3 percentage points.
“Some of the rhetoric nationally has been pretty ugly, especially around the #MeToo movement and the way that our president speaks about women,” said Catherine Barrett, 28, a Republican from Lenexa, a suburb in Johnson County, who supported Mrs. Clinton in 2016. Ms. Barrett said she voted for Ms. Sykes for State Senate when she ran as a Republican, “and I’ll be happy to vote for her as a Democrat.”
The political shift in Johnson County seems to be accelerating. Democrats carried the county in four out of five statewide races in 2018. Gov. Laura Kelly’s 17-percentage-point margin in the county was crucial to her flipping the governorship to the Democrats. And Kevin Yoder, a four-term Republican congressman from Johnson County who had always coasted to re-election, was decisively beaten by Representative Sharice Davids, a Democrat who became the first openly gay Kansan in Congress and one of the first two Native American women in the House.
“I think there was a lot of pushback that kind of jumped on the national bandwagon of anti-Trump,” said Kelly Arnold, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, which retained large majorities in both chambers of the State Legislature. “I think the Democrats did a pretty good job convincing swing voters we need something new.”
Across the country, Democrats made inroads in 2018 in suburban areas where they had long struggled. Near Minneapolis and St. Paul, two Republican congressmen lost their seats. Outside Chicago, Democrats took two congressional districts from Republicans and helped vote out Illinois’s Republican governor. And in suburban Orange County, Calif., one of the most famous Republican bastions of the 20th century, Democrats flipped four congressional seats.
In Kansas, Mr. Trump is by no means the only force stirring political turmoil. Sam Brownback, the Republican governor who resigned last yearto become a United States ambassador, was deeply unpopular in the state after pushing a philosophy of fiscal austerity over several years; his approach to school funding and a tax-cutting plan that led to revenue shortfalls and service cuts angered many residents.
Last year’s Republican nominee for governor, Kris W. Kobach, who got his political start in Johnson County by serving on the Overland Park City Council, put off some suburban voters with his strident language about illegal immigration and his public embrace of Mr. Trump. (Mr. Kobach also raised eyebrows by showing up at a parade in Shawnee, in Johnson County, with a replica machine gun mounted on his Jeep.)
All the while, a longstanding split between conservative and moderate Republicans in Kansas has grown increasingly contentious.
“Conservatives, or the further-right faction of the Republican Party, have continued and continued and continued to try to force those of us of the moderate mind out of the party,” said State Senator Barbara Bollier, a retired anesthesiologist from Mission Hills who was the first of the four Johnson County legislators to announce that she was becoming a Democrat.
Along with Ms. Sykes, Ms. Clayton and Ms. Bollier, the other Kansas lawmaker who changed parties was State Representative Joy Koesten, who lost the Republican nomination to a conservative challenger in last year’s primary. Ms. Koesten announced that she was becoming a Democrat a few weeks before her term ended.
Some conservatives sounded untroubled by the exodus of moderate lawmakers, who had frequently voted with Democrats in the Legislature even before changing parties. Some conservatives even saw the switches as an opportunity, freeing the Republican Party to run more conservative candidates in those districts.
Bob Cook, who has lived in Johnson County for decades, said he had seen his once reliably Republican area make “a 180-degree swing” as younger residents moved in.
Parents of school-age children in particular have become a significant political force on issues surrounding education in the county’s Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley school districts, which are consistently among the state’s best.
“I don’t think that the entire suburbs are all of a sudden blue,” said Liz Benditt, a leader of Education First Shawnee Mission, a group of mothers formed after the 2016 election that endorsed a mixed list of Democrats and moderate Republicans in legislative races last year. “I just think there’s more openness to talking about things we disagree about and finding common ground.”
For decades, Democrats were so toothless in Kansas that many left-leaning residents registered as Republicans so they could vote for moderates over conservatives in the party’s primaries, where most of the real decisions were made. As of last fall, the Republican Party had a 75,000-person advantage in registration in Johnson County. But some of those registered Republicans said the Trump and Brownback eras were pushing them away.
“The national politics around the party are such that I could not support it any more, publicly,” said Erin Thompson, 41, a lawyer and Roeland Park City Council member who did not run for another term as her precinct’s Republican committeewoman.
The four lawmakers who changed parties gave similar accounts.
They said they felt unwanted by Kansas Republicans and out of step with Mr. Trump’s priorities. Several grew frustrated when voters expected them to weigh in on whatever the president was saying on Twitter, or when questions about Mr. Trump dominated their interactions with voters while canvassing.
In the end, said Ms. Sykes, who faced the testy reception at the retirement home, “I had to do what I could do to look at myself in the mirror.”
This article was originally published on The New York Times website, here.
Paid for by The Senate Democrats Committee, Kerry Gooch, Treasurer.