Republican women keep defecting to the Democratic Party
In deep red Kansas, a worrying sign for the GOP: Republican women are switching sides
A funny thing is happening in my home state of Kansas right now: Republican women keep defecting to the Democratic Party.
State Sen. Barbara Bollier was the first to announce her exit last week, switching parties after 10 years as a legislator. She was quickly followed by outgoing State Rep. Joy Koesten, who was defeated earlier in the year by a conservative primary challenger. Then, on Wednesday, two more GOP women jumped ship: State Sen. Dinah Sykes and State Rep. Stephanie Clayton.
It's starting to look like a trend.
On one hand, maybe this isn't a surprise: A Democratic woman, Laura Kelly, just won the state's governorship, and last month's midterm elections turned out to to be the kind of "wave election" for Democrats that often sparks a few elected officials to switch parties to get on the winning side.
But a closer look suggests the rest of the country should take notice of this trend — and President Trump and today's GOP should be deeply concerned about their respective futures. "When anything is going to happen in this country," William Allen White once wrote, "it happens first in Kansas."
And in the famously red state of Kansas, women are leaving the GOP.
It's notable that the three defecting women who will remain in the legislature are actually making a sacrifice. The Republican Party still retains large majorities in both the Kansas Senate and Kansas House of Representatives — which means each woman is ditching the chance to share in the spoils that come with being in the majority party. Instead, they'll share in the futility of being in the opposition — something the normal rules of political self-preservation usually discourage. "Switching to the majority party is one thing," University of Houston political scientist Boris Shor notes. "Switching to the minority party is something entirely different."
So why did they leave?
Bollier cited the GOP's recalcitrant position on gay rights, while Clayton spoke of the need to better fund the state's public schools. Sykes, meanwhile, said the Republican Party had become too divisive in its approach to governing. All are moderates; none felt welcome in a party that rewards conservative purity and punishes independence — Bollier had already been stripped of her committee positions after endorsing Kelly for governor.
"At this time, I feel like I can either fight to change the Republican Party," Sykes said, "or fight for the state I love and the people I serve."
They may also sense other shifting political winds: All four women represent the prosperous Johnson County suburbs of Kansas City, a region that just turned out a Republican veteran of Congress in order to elect a Democratic woman to replace him, a trend that hit suburbs across the country.
Hovering over all of this, though, is the shadow of Donald Trump.
"I cannot be complicit in supporting that," Bollier told the Kansas City Star. "I can't call it leadership. I don't even know what to call him. He is our president, but he is not representing my value system remotely."
That's why the wave of defections isn't just a Kansas thing. Earlier this month, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she, too, was leaving the Republican Party, saying she made the decision to do so after watching Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings to the U.S. Supreme Court. And while outgoing Utah Congresswoman Mia Love hasn't announced her departure from the GOP, she made it clear after her election loss — and Trump's bizarre remarks that she "gave me no love" — that she's extremely unhappy with the state of the party.
Women are fleeing from the grassroots GOP, as well. Trump won only 41 percent of women's votes in 2016 — though he did win 52 percent of white women. But recent polls suggest he's losing even that meager advantage: Nearly three-fifths of blue-collar white women who are not evangelicals voted for Democrats last month, and about an equal portion say they disapprove of Trump. Among women, white evangelicals are sticking with the president — and that's about it.
The president's personal brand is stamped with misogyny — the Access Hollywood tape, his unbroken tendency to call women by cruel names and critique them in unsubtle sexual terms, limit his appeal, to say the least. That has damaged his party, which compounded the problem by rushing to confirm Kavanaugh this fall without much beyond a cursory consideration of sexual assault allegations against him. Trump gets the blame for that debacle, as well.
"The suburban women that I represent are definitely turned off by the president," Clayton told AP.
The lesson here isn't ideological — or, at least, it shouldn't be: Politicians and parties that want to win elections and keep seats in statehouses, the judiciary, and beyond must, at a bare minimum, treat women with a little bit of respect.
And if they don't? They might find they need women — even moderate women, even in Republican-loving states like Kansas — more than women need them.