The Future Swing State of…Kansas?

By H. Harrison Coleman IV

Leavenworth, Kansas

Education, urbanization and party attention all culminate into one clear result: the end of Republican dominance (Photo Credit: Gov Tech)

Kansas is a conservative state. Voting for Republicans in every presidential election since Lyndon Johnson’s great 1964 landslide victory tends to give a state that sort of reputation. I know from having the displeasure of living here that Kansas is far from a beacon of progressivism––the old adage that progress begins on the coasts and works its way to the nation’s interior is one I firmly believe in.


But the last several years have thrown everything that were once hallmarks in politics to the wayside, so why not the political leanings of Kansas? I believe that despite the conservative leanings of the Sunflower State, it is well on its way to the status of swing state, if not a blue state in the making.


Kansas is one of the most rural states in the Union, if you go off of stereotypes. In reality, Kansas is only the 26th most rural state, according to the 2010 census, with only 25.8% of the state living in rural areas. This means that Kansas is more urban than states like Louisiana, North Carolina and Kansas’s eternal rival, Missouri.


Kansas, like many other states, made great strides towards the left in the 2018 midterm elections. Democrat Laura Kelly won the gubernatorial election against Republican Kris Kobach. She is one of the few Democrat governors of (currently) red states, alongside Andy Beshear in Kentucky and John Bel Edwards in Louisiana. Also in 2018, Kansas elected a Democrat, Sharice Davids, to the House of Representatives who now represents the Kansas City adjacent 3rd Congressional District. Davids was the first Democrat to be elected to the House from Kansas since 2008, and her re-election in 2020 proved that her ascendance was more than just a flash-in-the-pan result of the 2018 blue wave.


However, the area in which Kansas’s liberalization can be seen the best is in the presidential election results over the last few years. In the 2020 presidential election, Kansas was more Democratic than in any other election since Obama’s 2008 landslide, with Biden receiving 41.5% of the Kansan vote and Donald Trump receiving the winning 56.1% for a final difference of 14.6%, a historically close margin––and several of Kansas’s largest counties flipped from Republican to Democratic. This marks the first time that Kansas voted to the left of the former swing state, nearby Missouri.


This makes for trends positive for the Democrats, with a 7% swing from 2012 to 2020. (It’s worth noting that due to a major third-party candidate, Evan McMullin, whose 2016 Presidential run claimed nearly 10% of the Kansas vote, it’s quite hard to compare 2020 to 2016 in Kansas). Notably, Riley County, home of Manhattan, KS, Shawnee County, home of the state capital of Topeka, and Johnson County, the Sunflower State’s most populous county, all flipped from red to blue.


This is undoubtedly the work of Kansas’s ballooning urban population, as according to WorldPopulationReview.com, those three counties grew by an average of 4.4%, over twice as fast as the Kansas average of 2.1%. In that same timeframe, Kansas’s rural population has plummeted, with some western Kansas counties losing up to 20% of their people in the past decade. This rural decline is paired with amazing urban growth—Kansas’s rural population has decreased by 4.7% since 2019, whereas the urban parts have grown by 5.5%. Large, liberal cities in Kansas like Kansas City (the part on the Kansas side of the border), Manhattan and Lawrence have shot up in population by 4.9%, and 4.7% and 11.7%, respectively.


It’s safe to say that Kansas is experiencing an urban-rural divide. Of Kansas’s 105 counties, only 5—Johnson, Wyandotte, Douglas, Shawnee and Riley, as well as some scattered Democratic voters in the rural areas—produced Biden’s impressive 41.5%, and Bollier’s 42%, whereas the remaining 100 counties broke for the Republicans to varying degrees.


If the Democratic Party wants to become competitive in Kansas, it absolutely can. The other large, relatively urban counties in Kansas––my current residence of Leavenworth County, Sedgwick County (home of Wichita) and the suburban Butler County––all narrowly stayed aligned with the GOP, but the Republicans’ future in these critical counties looks uncertain: these locales shifted 3%, 6.2% and 3.8%, respectively, more Democratic than in 2016. Flipping these counties could be the difference between keeping Kansas ruby-red and making a competitive battleground out of the Sunflower State.


This leftward trend has shown itself to extend to more than just presidential elections. Kansas’s Senate race, which was highly publicized and very well-funded on the part of Democratic candidate Barbara Bollier ended with Bollier winning a record 42% of the vote, losing to the Republican candidate, incumbent Roger Marshall. This represents a huge increase from the last Senate election Kansas held in 2016 when Republican incumbent Senator Jerry Moran won 62% to Democrat Patrick Wiesner’s 32%. This still represented a great gain on the Democratic candidates’ vote share from Senator Moran’s first election, in 2010, where he won 70% to 26%. (The reason I did not go through the electoral history of Senator Marshall's seat is the Democrats did not so much as bother to run a candidate the last time that seat was open in 2014.)


One final trend that would make Kansas Democrats smile is education. It’s a well-studied fact that higher education breeds liberalism, and the facts don’t lie: in a Wikipedia ranking of the states based on what percentage of their populace has at least a bachelor's degree, every state above the national average (30.9%) consistently goes for the Democrats in presidential elections. In fact, the most educated region, Washington, D.C., is the most liberal place in the U.S. The two exceptions to this rule are Kansas and Utah, and Utah has been seeing its own leftward swing. From 2012 to 2020, Utah swung by a margin of 14.5% to the Democratic column (it’s impossible to compare 2020 to the 2016 election there because of Evan McMullin’s third-party run).


Education, urbanization and party attention all culminate into one clear result: the end of Republican dominance, or at least unchallenged dominance. Flipping a state as conservative as Kansas seems impossible—but it’s not. Red state after red state has aligned with the Democrats in recent years. In 2008, I would have been completely off base to say that states such as Arizona and Georgia would be voting blue. Now, armed with greater foresight (not to mention an armful of demographic and electoral data), I am telling you now, in 2021, that Kansas is going to shock the nation and the world one election night not too far from now. After all, Kansas Democrats have exactly what they need: a guide.