TOPEKA, Kan. – The Republicans who control the Kansas Legislature are close to passing a congressional redistricting plan that marries an eastern Kansas community proud of its “woke” politics to Trump-loving small towns and farms five hours west by car on the expansive and stark plains.
Democratic legislators and some local officials see the worst kind of gerrymandering in the GOP's intentions for Lawrence, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Kansas City. The northeast Kansas city of almost 95,000 residents is home to the main University of Kansas campus.
A city that has a penchant for irritating conservatives with liberal politics — it's trying to move to entirely renewable energy, for example — would be moved into the sprawling 1st Congressional District of western and central Kansas where former President Donald Trump received almost 70% of the vote in 2020.
The Kansas House debated the bill Tuesday for four hours and set a final vote for Wednesday. The Senate approved the plan last week. Democrats don’t have the political strength to prevent its passage and might not be able to sustain a possible veto from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Both parties expect the lines to be settled in court.
Kansas’ new 1st District would not look like its GOP-drawn 1st District cousin in North Carolina, held together over the north-south length of that state by islands off its Atlantic coast, or the snaky Chicago-area districts that favor Democrats in Illinois. But it raises eyebrows even among some Republicans who planned to vote for it by having a finger of land extend far into eastern Kansas and end with Lawrence at a small tip.
"It's a travesty,” said Democratic state Rep. Boog Highberger, of Lawrence, an attorney. “It really disenfranchises my district, my city.”
As for the political divides between Lawrence and western Kansas, Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican and an architect of the GOP plan, said that divide exists now for Lawrence in the 2nd District of eastern Kansas. The 2nd has swaths of conservative rural territory in southeast Kansas. In fact, even some local residents acknowledge that such a divide exists between Lawrence and the less populated areas immediately around it.
“It’s a change in a number,” Masterson said Tuesday. “They were in District No. 2 and they were the most woke place, and they were with other counties in the 2nd that you could argue were the least-woke places. Now it’s District No. 1 with the most woke and the least woke.”
Though red Kansas has a few blue strongholds, Lawrence has a reputation as an especially liberal town.
In 2018, complaints from the then-Republican governor and others prompted the university to take down an altered American flag that was part of an art display. The following year, conservatives were irked by plans for a course called “Angry White Male Studies.” And many residents wanted local officials to resist federal immigration enforcement efforts during the Trump administration.
Democratic legislators and local officials complained about how the GOP map splits the city of Lawrence from the rest of Douglas County and even splits voting precincts. They also argued that Lawrence is oriented toward the Kansas City area, with people commuting there for jobs and fun.
“The map is clearly political gerrymandering in a way that only hurts voters,” said Shannon Portillo, a Douglas County commissioner who represents both part of the city and rural areas.
The change for Lawrence stems from other changes top Republicans proposed that would make it harder for the lone Kansas Democrat in Congress, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, to win reelection in her Kansas City-area 3rd District, which has swung back and forth between the two parties for nearly 25 years.
Davids' current district is overpopulated by nearly 58,000 residents, so Republicans' map moves part of the Kansas City area — where Davids is the strongest — into the neighboring 2nd District of eastern Kansas. To keep that district close to the ideal population and maintain a safe GOP seat, Democratic voters in Lawrence were moved out of the 2nd.
Republicans contend that the change for Lawrence is just about numbers and complying with mandates established by federal courts that congressional districts be made as equal in population as possible after a decade of population shifts. They argue that the GOP plan achieves that: Each of the four districts hits the target of 734,470 residents, exactly.
“For you over here,” Rep. Steve Huebert, a Wichita-area Republican, told Democrats during the House debate, “who says, 'Well, that's not fair,' that's the way it works."
Republican lawmakers argued that the University of Kansas gives Lawrence a common interest with other 1st District communities with universities, most notably Kansas State University in Manhattan, also in northeast Kansas.
When Democrats touted how Lawrence honors diversity, Republicans countered that southwest Kansas has three counties in which non-Hispanic white residents are a minority, largely because of meatpacking plants.
But Highberger and other Lawrence-area lawmakers believe the city's votes for Democratic candidates and progressive candidates will be swallowed by western Kansas conservatives, causing it to be ignored.
Though initially surprised, western Kansas lawmakers seemed to be taking the change in stride — and supporting the map.
“Rural counties are used to being put places, and you just have to make do with it,” said former Kansas Agriculture Secretary Josh Svaty, a former House member who sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018.
Also contributing was Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, and David Lieb, in Jefferson City, Missouri.
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