Another disappointing election leaves Kansas Democrats examining party's approach, message

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Larry Meeker, the new chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party, listens to a discussion during a meeting of its Progressive Caucus at the state party's annual Washington Days convention, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Topeka, Kan. Meeker said the party needs a simple, focused message on pocketbook issues to attract voters. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Former Kansas State Treasurer Dennis McKinney, of Greensburg, speaks to the Democratic State Committee, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Topeka, Kan. McKinney said party leaders must consider attracting votes from all parts of the state as important, referencing criticism that it has ignored rural Kansas. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Kansas Democratic Party Chairman Larry Meeker speaks with reporters after the party's state committee names him to the post, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Topeka, Kan. Meeker is a former vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks with reporters before addressing a banquet at Kansas Democrats' biggest annual convention, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley discusses economic issues with reporters before speaking to a banquet at Kansas Democrats' biggest annual convention, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

Democratic activists Pat Grady, left, and Norm Scott, center, both from Kansas City, Kansas, talk to former Kansas State Treasurer Dennis McKinney during the state party's annual Washington Days convention, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Topeka, Kan. Democrats are pondering how to rebuild the party after disappointing elections. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kansas — Kansas Democrats are rethinking political messages for voters and pondering how to rebuild their party, turning their biggest annual convention Saturday into a bit of an idea-generating session following their third consecutive disappointing election cycle.

Hundreds of Democratic activists and party leaders in Topeka for the annual Washington Days convention had little to celebrate in the way of election results. Starting in 2010, no Democrat has won a statewide or congressional race and the party now holds less than a quarter of the seats in the GOP-dominated Legislature.

Convention participants argued that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and conservative lawmakers are unpopular. They expressed confidence that Kansas voters are receptive to Democrats' calls to support public schools and support working and middle-class families.

But many of them also said the party has to change to capture congressional and additional legislative seats in 2016 and to elect the next governor in 2018. They haven't settled on the best approach to rebounding, but some have concluded that criticizing Brownback and his fellow conservatives isn't enough.

"We need to come up with a positive message," said Anne Pritchett, an Overland Park teacher elected Saturday as co-chairwoman of the party's Progressive Caucus. "I'm tired of talking about Brownback."

The Washington Days convention is a Friday night and Saturday of receptions, speeches, workshops and party meetings. The keynote speaker for the Saturday night banquet — an event that in 2006 drew then-rising party star, now President Barack Obama — was former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a potential presidential candidate in 2016.

The biggest piece of official business was electing a new party leader for the next two years, with State Chairwoman Joan Wagnon stepping down after four years. The state committee picked Larry Meeker, of Lake Quivira in the Kansas City area, a former vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank there.

Several top Democrats saw Republicans' success in linking Democrats in Kansas to Obama as a key factor in the minority party's woes.

And O'Malley told reporters before his speech, "We failed nationally to tell the affirmative, positive economic story about how we can make our economy work for all of us again."

While Meeker was the only declared candidate for the party's chairmanship, Phil Black, the Saline County chairman, nominated former State Treasurer Dennis McKinney of Greensburg. McKinney declined to be considered but said Democratic leaders must see attracting votes from all parts of the state as important.

Meeker said he believes Kansas Democrats are on the verge of unprecedented election gains because of budget problems Kansas faces after GOP lawmakers aggressively cut income taxes at Brownback's urging in 2012 and 2013 to stimulate the economy. But he said the party also needs a "focused" message speaking to varied constituencies across the state.

"The lead-in line for a conversation of about Republican issues is very simple: 'We're for smaller government, lower taxes,'" Meeker said. "What's the simple line that's the lead-in conversation for Democratic issues?"

Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said Saturday that the governor believes voters know his policies have created private-sector jobs, increased employment and lowered taxes to "empower every Kansan to achieve a brighter future."

Democrats at the Topeka convention also said their party needs to concentrate more on building local and regional party organizations and winning local offices, so that Democrats build up credibility with voters in even GOP-leaning areas.

Democrats traditionally lag Republicans in the percentage of registered voters, but the gap grew wider in 2014, compared with 2010. While Democrats' numbers dropped by 33,000, to 427,000, the GOP number grew by 11,000, to nearly 778,000 of the 1.7 million registered voters.

Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said Democrats are smart to look at building voter registration numbers and local party groups, though it may not pay immediate dividends.

"It's easier to say than to do," Barker said. "People love to have their opinions and they'll post on Facebook, but it's actually a little bit harder to get them to do something."


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