Republican Nancy Kassebaum endorses Kansas Democrats these days. What does she know?

Dave Williams/Associated Press file photo

Why doesn’t Nancy Kassebaum endorse Republicans anymore?

Kassebaum was a popular GOP senator from Kansas for 18 years, but lately she’s been endorsing Democrats in big races. This week, she backed Gov. Laura Kelly’s reelection campaign, four years after endorsing Kelly’s first gubernatorial run. In between, she endorsed Democrat Barbara Bollier’s run for U.S. Senate against Roger Marshall, the eventual victor.

This week’s announcement was all the more notable because Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kelly’s Republican challenger, worked for Kassebaum early in his political career.

That’s awkward, to say the least.

“Derek will always be grateful to Nancy for giving him an early opportunity for public service as a junior member of her staff 30 years ago,” C.J. Grover, Schmidt’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “He admires her personally, despite their political differences, but has been disappointed with the fact that she has not supported a Republican nominee for governor of Kansas during this century.”

Grover is onto something. Despite her pedigree — her father, Alf Landon, was the GOP’s sacrificial lamb nominee for president against Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 — it is difficult to think of Kassebaum as a Republican in good standing. Not only does she endorse Democrats, but she also called for Donald Trump’s impeachment after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. It’s not an insult to suggest that Kassebaum might be a “RINO,” a Republican In Name Only.

What happened? Did she leave the GOP, or did the GOP leave her?

Probably the latter. Kassebaum was always a moderate. She was a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, and an outspoken — if seemingly reluctant — advocate of a woman’s right to an abortion. “I believe that abortion is seldom, if ever, the right moral choice, but it should nevertheless be a choice,” she said in a 1983 Senate speech. The issue, she added, “is not one which is appropriately addressed in any legislative forum.”

She was also bipartisan, when the times called for it. Perhaps most famously, Kassebaum partnered with Sen. Edward Kennedy, the progressive scourge of conservatives everywhere, on a 1996 law that gave American workers the option to keep their health insurance when they left their jobs. It was a small but vital step forward between the collapse of President Bill Clinton’s universal health care proposal and the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

Kansas Republicans knew all of this when they made her their Senate nominee three times between 1978 and 1990. And Kansans knew it when they sent her to Washington. The difference between then and now? There was room for Kassebaum types in the GOP back then. These days, not so much.

Truth be told, times were already changing at the end of Kassebaum’s service in the Senate. In 1992, she helped form the Republican Majority Coalition to battle the rising influence of the religious right within the party. And it’s probably not a coincidence that she chose to leave office rather than run again in 1996, two years after Newt Gingrich spearheaded the GOP’s 1994 takeover of the House of Representatives with an angry, ugly, divisive style of politics that presaged Trumpism.

Kassebaum endorsed Sheila Frahm, another moderate, to be her successor. Kansas Republicans chose Sam Brownback instead. We know how that turned out.

Given that, and the quarter century that has elapsed since her time in office, it might be surprising that Kassebaum’s nod carries much weight. A whole generation of Kansans voters wasn’t even alive the last time she won election, after all. So it’s notable that Schmidt’s campaign — which hasn’t hesitated to throw elbows against Kelly’s other Republican backers — felt compelled to give a “more in sadness than in anger” response to Kassebaum’s endorsement.

That, along with voters’ recent overwhelming rejection of the “Value Them Both” abortion amendment, suggests there’s still room for Nancy Kassebaum’s brand of moderate politics. The Kansas GOP has moved on. But maybe Kansas hasn’t.