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  • Writer's pictureMike Matson

Sharp Edges Worn Down

This column was published June 15, 2024 in the Manhattan Mercury.


I saw his name and was hurtled back in time. David Miller is running for the state Senate, in the 2nd District, made up of parts of Douglas and Jefferson Counties.


Some context.


It’s 1998 and I am a card-carrying, true believing, professional political operative.   


Gov. Bill Graves, the quintessential Kansas moderate Republican is preparing to seek re-election and building his campaign staff. Since I managed the message for his successful ’94 effort and served a similar role on the Governor’s staff, he asked me to take a leave of absence and help recreate the campaign magic of four years earlier.     


That era also featured the birth pangs of an ideological split in the Kansas GOP. Leading up to the ’94 election, behind the scenes, conservatives were quietly working the apparatus to gain control of the Kansas Republican Party.


They recruited and supported like-minded loyalists to run for precinct committee chairs. There are a lot of them, about 60 for each party in Riley County alone. The law states (then and now) that one man and one woman be elected from each precinct for each of the two parties. Maybe someone should take on the system over gender identity?


These are the people who decide who gets to replace sitting office holders when they step down, midterm, to “spend more time with the family,” or who just grow weary of the battle. (Think Usha Reddi succeeding Tom Hawk in the Kansas Senate for the Democrats two years ago).

In the ‘90s, after gaining a majority at the precinct level across Kansas, the conservatives installed Miller as state party Chair, a selection that until then, had traditionally been reserved for the sitting Governor. But playing by the rules trumps tradition, and complacent moderate Republicans could do nothing but wring their hands. The conservatives hijacked the party, but they did it fair and square. 


This crew didn’t like Graves, split with him on tax relief, spending, and cultural hot button stuff like abortion and guns. They got really mad when, after losing his majority in the Kansas House, Graves worked with a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats to outflank them.  


Mad to the point that they decided to take him out. They sought a conservative candidate to challenge Graves in the 1998 GOP primary and David Miller was their man. Long before being primaried was a thing, we were primaried. Bear in mind, all of this occurred years before party identity transitioned from ideology to fealty.


Unsure how the conservative precinct organizational skills would translate to actual votes, we took no chances. Our opposition research revealed that, as a member of the House in the ‘80s, Miller had voted for a couple of tax hikes. TV spots were on the air in less than a week. Campaign 101 – define your opponent before they can define themselves. Turns out our worries were for naught. Graves trounced Miller in the primary, garnering 73% of the vote.


Because he was popular and the Democrats liked him, no legitimate D’s wanted to take him on, so then-Kansas House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer of Wichita fell on his sword and mounted an honorable, though Quixote-esque fall campaign.


In 1998, the election for Kansas Governor was decided in the primary. We coasted to the general and won big again. Played a lot of golf that fall. My game was never sharper. After November, I returned to the Governor’s staff.  


Working on political campaigns at that level is not for the faint of heart. It becomes personal. Pretty sure we taped Miller’s picture to a dartboard. You grow to love your guy and can find precious little positive about your opponent. The work can very easily slide into cynicism, or worse.


Core principles do not fade away, at least they shouldn’t. Loyalty does not die with time; it just mellows and seats itself a little deeper in your heart. Sharp edges get worn down with experience and time, wisdom, even.


I haven’t thought about David Miller in 26 years. If today I lived in Kansas’ 2nd Senate District, I would not vote for him.


But I also wouldn’t throw a dart at his picture.



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