Kansas Republicans head for Washington

By Tara McKelvey
White House reporter

  • Published
Trump stands next to Kris KobachImage source, Drew Angerer
Image caption,
Trump, shown with Kris Kobach in November, has spoken about policy with Kansans

With a new administration, new pockets of political power form, and Kansas conservatives are among those benefitting from the Trump White House.

The Midwest, at least to some in Washington and Los Angeles, is known as "flyover country", a place you glimpse from an aeroplane while travelling from one place that matters - the East coast - to another place that matters - the West coast - or vice versa. The writer Sarah Kendzior has a whole book, The View From Flyover Country, on this phenomenon.

President Trump has turned this notion upside down.

Once ridiculed and diminished by those in Washington, Kansans are now a force to be reckoned with. Those from flyover country - and especially Kansas - are now in power.

Several days ago, three Republicans from Kansas, Michael O'Donnell, Dalton Glasscock and Victoria Snitsar, arrived in Washington on the same flight.

O'Donnell, a county commissioner from Wichita, bolted out of the airport gate, carrying a garment bag. Glasscock, who had worked as his campaign manager, was texting as he left the plane.

Meanwhile Snitsar, a college student and an intern at a Topeka lobbying firm, headed off to a meeting for conservative women.

All three came had come for the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

Image caption,
Wichita's Michael O'Donnell says Trump helped him get elected

Trump's strong support in Kansas helped O'Donnell and other candidates win elections at the state and local level.

"They said: 'Yeah, I'll vote for Michael if you put a Trump sign in my yard," Glasscock says, recalling campaign door-knocking in his district in Sedgwick County.

Kansans were drawn to Trump because they're industrious and "self-reliant", says John Barker, a Republican state representative from Abilene. They saw Trump as a kindred spirit.

"They're very independent," Barker says, adding that Republicans in the state supported Trump because of his "anti-establishment" streak.

That doesn't mean all Republicans who live in Kansas are fond of Trump.

Snitsar, a University of Kansas student, supports Trump and admires his top adviser Kellyanne Conway. "I want to be her," Snitsar says.

Yet Snitsar, who was born in Moscow, said she's worried about Trump's relationship with President Vladimir Putin, as well as other aspects of the administration.

Image caption,
Victoria Snitsar, a Republican, has doubts - but supports Trump

She reflects the views of many in Kansas: she's wary, but she's supporting him for now.

Here at the start of the Trump administration, Kansas conservatives have cachet within the Republican Party, and also in Washington.

In some cases they have parlayed this newfound status into positions of influence.

On Monday, a Kansas congressman, Mike Pompeo, was sworn in as the new CIA director..

Former Senator Bob Dole helped arrange Trump's phone call with the Taiwanese president, telling the Wall Street Journal he exerted "influence" over Trump's decision to speak with Tsai Ing-wen, a shift in almost forty years of US policy.

Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, has spoken about homeland security issues with Trump during the transition. He says he was an early advisor on Trump's executive orders on immigration and voting rights.

During one of his visits, Kobach was photographed carrying a copy of his plans for homeland security. The document described "extreme vetting" of individuals who want to come to the US.

Trump administration officials are also considering the possibility of adapting Governor Sam Brownback's ideas for tax reform, as writers for Governing and other media organisations have reported.

Brownback believes tax cuts for the wealthy generates revenue flows and create jobs, though in practice his programme wasn't a success.

"It gutted state revenue and created a budget crisis," says Patrick Miller, a political scientist at University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Image source, Carolyn Kaster
Image caption,
At Trump Tower, Kansas' Kris Kobach revealed details about his homeland-security plans

Brownback and Kobach are ultraconservatives, individuals whose positions fall on the right side of the spectrum.

In contrast Dole, a former presidential candidate himself, belongs to a group that O'Donnell describes as "the mods".

The moderates and the ultraconservatives in Kansas don't always agree with each other, or with Trump.

"There's conflict," Barker says, adding that some conservatives balked at Trump's $1tn ($800bn) infrastructure plan, because they don't like big-government initiatives.

And not all Kansas Republicans are getting what they want from the administration.

Some thought the president would name Kobach as his immigration czar, but Kobach remains without a job in Washington.

Brownback was reportedly on a short list for agriculture secretary, but the nomination instead went to former governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue.

Still Kansas Republicans have wielded influence over the president. Maybe it's happenstance: the state has a lot of Republicans, and some "saw an opportunity," says Miller.

Or as Mark Dugan, Brownback's former campaign manager, puts it: Kansas has a lot of "good folks, ready to serve".

Image source, Joe Raedle
Image caption,
President Trump chose Kansas lawmaker Mike Pompeo as CIA director

Others believe Kansas' success in the new administration comes from a combination of personal qualities and a set of traits specific to Kansas.

It's a state awash in social conservatism, free-market values and political contributions from David and Charles Koch, brothers whom journalist Jane Mayer once described as "fiercely libertarian".

"It's a perfect storm," says Michael Smith, a professor at Emporia State University in Emporia.

"You have social conservatives. You have a libertarian climate that especially correlates with the Kochs.

"Maybe this produced the type of politician that is perfect for the Trump administration - risk-taking, blunt-spoken and easier to frame as anti-establishment."

That administration has put them in a new zone - figuratively and literally.

"My phone still hasn't switched," O'Donnell said, glaring at his mobile he stood in the lobby of the Hart senate office building on the day before the inauguration.

It was 10:30 in Washington but he - or at least his phone - was stuck on central time, an hour earlier.

Image source, Pool
Image caption,
Former Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, shown at the inauguration, has advised Trump

O'Donnell headed for the ground-floor office of Pat Roberts, a Republican senator from Kansas. Glasscock picked up inaugural tickets. Afterwards they visited other congressional offices, carrying the legal-sized envelopes of the tickets for themselves and their friends.

In one office, O'Donnell stopped in front of a mirror, smoothing down his hair. He left - and rushed back a moment later to get his Ray-Bans.

In looks and manner, he embodied the brash, new kind of conservative flourishing under the Trump administration.

On Inauguration Day, Snitsar stood in front of the US Capitol building with others from Kansas and listened to the president's speech.

Drinking mint tea in a restaurant several hours later, she said the inauguration reminded her of a scene from The Lion King - "with the rain and all that".

Not everybody saw the event as magnificent. While she and others from Kansas celebrated, protesters set a limousine on fire.

Glasscock posted a picture of the vehicle in flames, commenting: "Y'all really like losing."

He was gloating, a trait not usually associated with Kansans. But a new era had begun, and a new kind of Republican was being set loose.

Follow @Tara_Mckelvey on Twitter.