Updated: Dec 12, 2020
I’ve just returned home from the Riley County Clerk’s office where I transcribed numbers from the big abstract binder that is kept in the basement of the courthouse annex. I wanted to know if 2020 was the first time that Riley County had voted for the Democrat in all three national races: President, US Senate, and US House of Representatives. Recent election results are accessible on the Riley County Clerk’s website, but I wanted to go back to the Reagan years.
It is probably safe to assume that any Riley County Democrat who got involved at all spent the first week after Election Day googling election results once or twice a day. So I’m guessing that you all saw the red/blue national maps and clicked on Kansas to see what that looked like. There, you saw the blue Riley County boot sitting in the sea of red that was central and western Kansas. The closest blue county was Shawnee, and all of the other blue counties were to our east.
Riley County went for Joe Biden. He got 50.7% of the vote here. Riley Countians preferred Barbara Bollier with 50.6% of the vote. And Kali Barnett got 12,925 votes. That is 51.7% of the votes cast for US House of Representatives in Riley County - and is the largest number of votes that any Democrat national candidate has gotten out of Riley County in a presidential year in the past 40 years!
Many of you may remember Jim Slattery who represented us in the US House of Representatives before the district lines were re-drawn. In ’92, when he was at the height of his popularity, Riley County gave him 700 fewer votes than it cast for Kali last month.
Here is what I learned in the basement of the courthouse annex today: since 1980, Riley County had never voted blue in a presidential year for all three national races until 2020. In fact, in the last ten presidential-election years, Riley County has not voted for the Democrat in either the Senate or the presidential race. Since Reagan, Slattery had been the only Democrat candidate for national office to carry Riley County.
Mind you, we didn’t win 2020 because Republicans stayed home. It is indeed true that we Democrats turned out in record numbers.
Calculated on the basis of the voters in VAN (a much-updated voter roll compared to what the county clerk has) 88% of registered Riley County Democrats cast ballots. The county party spent over $20,000 and hundreds of hours trying to make that happen.
Even while Riley County Republicans turned out at about the same rate, we still won almost everything: President, US Senate and KS Senate, US Souse and KS House and county commission. We lost only one county commission seat and one KS house seat - and those have not been Democrat in many years.
These successes aren’t very comforting to any Kansas Democrat right now. None of us feels very good about what’s going on. I imagine I am the only Riley County party-chair in history who felt compelled to rise early on voting day to scout for armed intimidators at polling places. Oh yes, the Kansas Democratic party - Riley County included – was ready with a plan. Now that I think about it, I suppose it is possible that concerns about armed intimidators may have been present once before, during the civil war. Maybe Sam Houston and Isaac Goodnow, or a Marlatt or a Mitchell discussed voter protection in some of the same terms as we did this year. Of course, back then the good guys were Republicans.
The first Republican president, an acquaintance of Goodnow and other anti-slavery Kansan leaders of that time, would be heartbroken at what his party has become in 2020. But Abraham Lincoln did foresee this time in America. As soon as the war was over, he began to recognize how it had re-shaped the country. Just before his assassination Lincoln wrote to a friend,“I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war.”
He wrote that what he saw “unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic is destroyed.”
Of course, the “prejudices of the people” is exactly what today’s Republican politician relies on to get elected. If your only message is fear, it helps to have a uniquely credulous audience. When K-State students decided to tax themselves to build a student union building, local conservatives howled that those snot-nose socialists were going to drive private enterprise out of Manhattan.
Let's review a few other examples of Kansas Republican narratives:
Kansas Republicans fell for Alf Landon’s fiction that the FDIC was a government plot to nationalize and destroy the banking industry. The rest of the country just laughed, but Kansas Republicans swallowed it.
The same kind of Kansas Republican that legislated the Orphan Train out of existence because the orphans it brought here for placement “flood our communities with crime and disease” can visit the museum at Concordia and tear up with pride at the goodness of our people.
A Kansas Republican can believe that voter fraud is rampant in his county while simultaneously knowing that his Republican County clerk is honest and competent - as were the Republican clerks before him.
They can sit and shoot the bull in the local Coop office, probably the only socialist organization in town (unless they have a HyVee or a Green Bay Packers franchise) and swear that they would never vote for a Democrat because Democrats are socialists, and socialists are evil.
Of course, none of this is news to any Kansan who has advocated for good schools or a proper response to the climate crisis or the expansion of Medicaid or the protection our national parks or women’s reproductive rights or humane treatment of refugees or common-sense gun laws or that black lives do indeed matter.
And we all know that all this basic conservative stupidity has been fed and nourished for 40
years by the Koch Brothers’ and NRA’s multi-million-dollar anti-government, anti-democracy
contamination of our public discourse.
But the price of stupidity is suddenly rising fast. Not since Quantrill, Mudd and Booth has America seen armed groups threatening our elected governments.
We have never before seen a president’s sycophants enter a statehouse armed to the teeth, or plot to kidnap and kill a governor. We’ve not had large numbers of Americans willing to believe that the other party is part a cabal that drinks human blood and turns kidnapped children into sex slaves.
Until last month I could never have imagined that my niece, a teacher in Kansas City, would be accused - because she voted for Biden - of teaching pedophilia, and even worse, that her accuser would be a sibling.
This is not a particularly happy farewell. Despite our local victories, the best news I have to share is that the leadership of the county party has been handed off to younger, smarter people than I. They have new ideas and skills, and they know how to organize and communicate using tools that are beyond my understanding. We all must support them and our elected Democrats in every way we can.
Carl Reed was Chair of the Riley County Democratic Party from January 2019 through November 2020. Now that he has time back in his life, he can resume playing bass, gardening, and chairing Moms Demand Action MHK.