There are some liberals in southwestern Kansas, including those in a place actually named Liberal, the Kansas town on the Oklahoma border with a majority Hispanic population and the self-appointed home of Dorothy. But for the Liberal liberals who want to make an impact in the Democratic nomination race, they’ll have to leave early on March 5th to drive the hour and a half to their caucus site in Dodge City.
Many Democrats living in the western half of the state face long drives next Saturday afternoon because Kansas Democrats organize their caucuses by senate districts, of which there are 40 in the state. There’s actually 47 caucus sites across the state as some senate districts cross Congressional district lines.
In several rural, sparsely populated parts of Kansas, that means a caucus site could cover many counties. Senate District 40 covers 13 and a half counties, Senate District 39 covers ten and Senate District 36 covers 11 full counties and parts of two others.
That, of course, presents some logistical difficulties. You may face a five hour round-trip if you’re in northwest Kansas’ Senate District 40, and you had to drive from St. Francis to the caucus location of Hays.
Leading Democrats in the state acknowledge the difficulties the caucus setup presents in some areas.
“It has been a little tough,” admits Kerry Gooch, the executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. The most difficult part, Gooch says, is getting the news out by digging up contact information for all the local county papers to send press releases to. They’ve also sent out lots of postcards and done an online and social media push to raise awareness in those areas.
“You almost have to do it on a Saturday,” explains State Senator Marci Francisco of Lawrence, who headed part of the party’s caucus process. “The more time it takes to participate, the fewer people who are going to be able to say they have that much time out of their day to do this. Luckily, people in western Kansas are used to driving. Hopefully they can combine it with errands or seeing their friends. You do want to make it as much of a party and a gathering and a chance to see your friends and like-minded people. But we have to recognize that we’re asking people to do a lot.”
Why not hold them in more places? The biggest impediment to that is there simply aren’t organized Democratic parties in many of these counties.
Matt Otte, the chair of the Mitchell County Democrats in north-central Kansas, is heading up the caucus for Senate District 36, held in Beloit. He’s organized several of the counties within the district, like Marshall and Cloud counties, but many lack Democratic activists willing to lead their county.
“Given the level of participation in the Democratic Party here in Kansas, I think it’s the best that we can put out right now,” Otte says. He would prefer there be at least three sites in his particular senate district. Right now the furthest towns out in his district have to drive about two hours to the caucus site in Beloit.
So how on earth does a campaign organize their supporters for such a caucus? Starting Line traveled out to Garden City, Kansas, about three and a half hours west of Wichita, to find out.
On Monday night Hillary Clinton field organizer Sean Butler arrived at the Garden City house of Nelda Lewis, a retiree and Clinton supporter who opened up her home for a volunteer phone bank. Close to a dozen local Democrats showed up to make calls into the surrounding counties to encourage them to caucus for Clinton on March 5th. Butler, who organized mostly-rural Jackson County in the Iowa Caucus, says he’s had to adjust a few of his tactics for the five rural Kansas senate districts he’s in charge of now.
“It presents different challenges for sure,” Butler says. “In terms of organizing, there’s actually some pros to the district-level. It allows you to get a bigger group of people together. What I’ve found now with rural – I’ve been doing it for two straight caucuses – the community that you run into, there’s real organizing work that happens before you get there. The civic groups, the active and engaged people in their community know each other already.”
“We’re making sure we’re organizing in literally every corner of Kansas,” adds Lauren Brainerd, Clinton’s Kansas state director, who has sent two staffers out west of Wichita to organize. “Where it’s rural, we’re continuing to do phone banks and knock on doors.”
Butler already has several carpools organized to drive Clinton supporters from far-flung towns into their caucus location. He’s got a whole caravan of cars ready to bring voters from Liberal to Senate District 38’s caucus in Dodge City.
“The ask actually isn’t all that big,” he explains. “And the commitment is very real and the excitement to come out … For most folks it’s not even a question, they’re more than happy to do it.”
Several Garden City locals agree that the spread-out districts aren’t as big a hindrance as you might at first think.
“Garden City is a shopping hub for people in this whole area, so it’s not that unusual for people to travel great distances in Western Kansas,” says Carole Geier, a longtime Democratic activist who was at the Clinton phone bank. Driving an hour to go on a groceries run or to see friends in the next county over is actually pretty common.
Still, it’s obviously a larger commitment than your regular vote at a polling place.
“The biggest challenge is voter apathy,” believes Otte. “If it’s not easy, they’ll say, ‘eh, I’ll skip it.’”
That could end up benefiting the candidate with the most grassroots enthusiasm, which many Sanders supporters believe they have a distinct advantage with.
“Sanders seems to have the people who are talking, they’re talking Sanders,” says Otte of what he hears locally in-person and online around Beloit. “I don’t see a whole lot of people talking Hillary. The people who like her are going to vote for her… There’s a bit of fear [in conservative areas], people don’t want to identify.”
“Because it’s so geographically spread out it’s a lot more phone calls,” says Shelby Iseler, Sanders’ Kansas state director, who notes their grassroots supporters started organizing themselves last April. “We have a very robust digital program, so even then, when we walked in the door, we had phone bankers who had already been hosting phone banks in these rural places of Kansas.”
Indeed, Sanders’ robust presence on Facebook (the Kansas for Bernie Sanders group has over 3,000 members) and other online sites gives him a real boost in organizing areas all around the state. Who comes into March 5th with real momentum and motivation will also have a big impact on who shows up.
“For the people who have a strong opinion, it won’t matter,” says Carol Dalke, a Clinton volunteer in Garden City. “If they feel like it doesn’t make a difference, they’ll say, ‘well, it’s an hour away, I’m not going to go.’ But generally these sites are within an hour to two hours, and we don’t think much about that in this part of the state. If you’re out and about, you’re going to drive that far.”
Even a small difference in turnout could determine multiple delegates in the spread-out districts. While party leaders and campaign staffers are expecting upwards of one thousand caucus-goers in some of the more condensed caucus sites in the Kansas City suburbs, Lawrence, Topeka and Wichita, the locations in rural Kansas may number in the dozens or low hundreds.
Geier, the activist in Garden City, recalls a turnout of about 150 there in 2008. Most are expecting a smaller turnout overall from Obama’s win in 2008, but this time they also have two campaigns well-organized in the state. Otte, of Mitchell County, thinks they’ll see even fewer in Beloit.
“I’m expecting in the neighborhood of 50 people, and that’s optimistic I think,” Otte says.
Otte’s caucus site will elect six district-level delegates, so one extra carload of Sanders or Clinton supporters could easily capture an extra delegate for their candidate. A mix of enthusiasm and organization in these rural areas could very well determine who comes out of Kansas with a win and a lead in delegates.
by Pat Rynard