Kansas Democrats try to regroup after chairman resigns amid rebranding remark backlash

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WICHITA, Kansas — The resignation of the Kansas Democratic Party's chairman amid a backlash over comments he made about rebranding the party's message has thrown a mid-year political convention into flux.

The "DemoFest" gathering began Friday in Wichita just hours after the resignation of Larry Meeker. He had faced criticism from some members of the party, including gay rights activists, after saying Kansas Democrats were fiscal conservatives and the state party should emphasize that it welcomes members who disagreed with its support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Meeker said that message would be "a pickup line" in a more conservative state.

"I was concerned about the statements, but I didn't expect a resignation," Rep. Boog Highberger said. "I think the timing's not great. But I'm confident we can come together and move forward."

Further complicating the situation was the fact that party officials had neglected to send out formal notices that the party's state committee would be meeting during the convention, The Lawrence Journal-World (http://bit.ly/1EabdVX reports.

Because of that, the committee is prevented under party bylaws from taking any action to name a new leader this weekend. Instead, the committee decided to meet Oct. 3 in Salina to select a successor. Until then, the party's first vice-chairwoman, Kathryn Focke of Manhattan, will take over leadership responsibilities.

Among the names circulating as possibilities are former House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, of Greensburg, and Wichita attorney Lee Kinch, a former vice chairman of the party.

McKinney was the subject of a draft movement just before the party's last convention in March in Topeka. Although he declined the nomination, he told state party officials then that Kansas Democrats have focused too much in recent years on urban voters in the Kansas City-Lawrence-Topeka corridor and have largely ignored rural areas where Democrats once were competitive.

"I think by the end of the weekend, we will have coalesced behind someone who is very experienced and will be well suited to lead this party in the 2016 and 2018 elections," said Rep. John Carmichael, of Wichita.

Information from: Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World, http://www.ljworld.com

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