Stephanie Clayton won her fourth term in the Kansas legislature as a moderate Republican but when she started in office this month, she did so as a Democrat. She says she had an abrupt change of heart about a month after the November election last year.
It was the day Republican legislative leaders said they wanted to rewrite a school-finance bill that Clayton and other moderate Republicans had worked alongside Democrats to pass in last year’s session. For her, it was a breaking point.
“I thought, ‘I really can’t do this anymore,’ ” she says. “By the 12th I was being asked to switch parties” and by the 19th, she had.
That was the same day state Sen. Dinah Sykes, another former moderate Republican from the Kansas City suburbs, announced her switch to join the Democrats, too.
Sykes, like Clayton, says she felt like an outlier in the Republican caucus.
“You know, if you didn’t vote in lockstep and fall in line you were penalized.”
That’s what happened to state Sen. Barbara Bollier, also a former moderate Republican from the same Kansas City suburbs. When Bollier endorsed Democratic candidates for election, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle — a Republican — says she had no choice but to strip Bollier of her committee leadership posts. “That was the line,” Wagle says.
As a Democrat, Bollier says this legislative session, for the first time, “I don’t have that pit in my stomach. That stress of knowing I don’t agree with so many of the policies,” brought forward by Republicans.
Like the other former-Republican lawmakers, Bollier says she reached a breaking point, too. She didn’t align with Republican positions on issues ranging from LGBTQ rights to Medicaid expansion and says she gave up trying to steer the party back to what she considered its traditional center.
“I’ve spent nine years trying to do that and I failed, and I’m not alone. Many people have been trying to do that,” Bollier says.
On the surface, Kansas House Majority Leader Daniel Hawkins seems unconcerned by the defections.
“Was she ever really voting with us as a Republican?” he says of Stephanie Clayton. “I think if you look at her voting record, she’s where she should be.”
“It’s a trend that we’d been seen in suburbia growing for 20 years,” says University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller about the transition from red to blue in the Kansas City suburbs. “I think it’s reached a flashpoint recently.”
And by switching parties, these lawmakers have likely improved their re-election chances, Miller says. Going from majority party outcasts to celebrated members of the minority could also increase their influence as lawmakers.
Bollier – a retired physician – is now the ranking Democrat on the health committee. A slot that, until recently, was filled by former state senator, now Governor, Laura Kelly.