On Wednesday, two state legislators in Kansas announced that they were switching parties. State Sen. Dinah Sykes and state Rep. Stephanie Clayton said that they no longer believed the Republican Party could best represent them or their constituents and that they were officially joining the Democratic Party.
They followed two other women who had left the party last week: State Sen. Barbara Bollier started the movement when she renounced her 43-year membership in the Republican Party last Wednesday, and outgoing state Rep. Joy Koesten, who lost her seat in this year’s primary to a conservative challenger, followed suit the next day.
In making the decision, the four left the more powerful party in the state. Republicans have large majorities in both the House and Senate. In spite of the damage done to the state’s economy by a radical and experimental set of tax cuts in 2012, Kansas has continued to swing rightward. The moderate former Republican legislators said that their state party became more extreme to stay in step with the national party, but they have hope that the voters themselves won’t follow—a belief they say is seen in Kansas’ election of a Democratic governor this November.
Slate spoke separately Thursday with three of the legislators—Sykes, Clayton, and Koesten—to find out how they decided to break with the Republican Party and what they hope to accomplish from the decision. These conversations have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
How did you come to make this decision?
State Rep. Joy Koesten: When I entered the Legislature, I had a wonderful core group of moderate legislators: about 45 of us who worked hard to turn things around in Kansas. The leadership was still far to the right, and during the two years I served, there was clear evidence the party wasn’t behind us. They were actively recruiting people to run against us in the primaries and funding campaigns against us. … It didn’t make sense to stay in a party that didn’t want moderate voices.
State Sen. Dinah Sykes: It was a lot of processing for myself, talking to friends, talking to family, talking to supporters, to people within the Republican Party, in the Democratic Party. And I had a sleepless night trying to determine what to do. But I always want my district to be represented by a moderate, pragmatic person. And it seems that even [at the state level], you were seeing more and more of the right wing taking over the party. “You have to be in lockstep with me.” Sort of this purity test. And that was not me.
State Rep. Stephanie Clayton: The House and Senate leadership made an announcement they were planning on scrapping the education plan. The whole reason I decided to run was my then-young daughter started school, and I noticed schools weren’t funded. We did craft a wonderful school formula, accepted by courts and constituents as good solid plan. Both factions, Democrats and Republicans, had a voice in this. And now leadership wants to arbitrarily scrap it as part of a saber-rattling exchange with the [new Democratic] governor. I didn’t feel I could be a part of it anymore. … It was destruction for the sake of destroying. That’s not how you run a state. That’s not how you run a country.
When did you realize this was something you might do?
Koesten: The day I was elected, it was on the same day Donald Trump was elected. And that was probably the biggest jolt of reality I’ve ever had. Certainly to indicate I’d have some very tough maneuvering to try to keep my soul and still represent my district. And so I think it’s probably been brewing for some time as my party moves further and further to the right. Sen. Barbara Bollier announced her switch about a week and a half ago, and it didn’t come as a great surprise to me. It felt like time to make that move.
Sykes: It was probably closer to Thanksgiving when I really started thinking about it. There were times before then, but I always felt, “No, I can make a difference. I could change this. I’m a rational person. I have a rational voice. I can talk to my fellow Republicans.”
Clayton: Monday, [Dec.] 10, was when I heard about the plan to scrap the education plan. And on the 12th, my colleague defected for her own reasons. I thought, “I am done. I cannot do this anymore.”
How has national politics played a role in your decision?
Sykes: I could fight to try to save my party, or I could fight for my constituents or my state. And with what’s going on nationally, it was hard to do both. You see the extreme—what Donald Trump and the Republican Party [are doing].
People in your district are saying, “You have to speak out about this. Why are you a part of this?” regardless of if my votes in the Senate would align with things that are coming out of national politics. This is pulling away from the job you’re supposed to be doing: My job is not to respond about every crazy tweet or comment that’s coming.
Kris Kobach (the Republican nominee for governor) was supported by the president—[Trump] came and campaigned for him. And that didn’t help [the rhetoric]. But he was not elected governor, so we saw, overall, that’s not what our state wanted. The way Kansas is … to fight that you have to have rational people running for precinct committee positions. But they’re so frustrated with what’s happening nationally, they won’t run for office. So how do you fix the system when they don’t want to be a part of it because this label has become so toxic?
Clayton: I’ve always been good at compartmentalizing. Like, that’s Washington. That’s not here, that’s not me, not affecting my district. [But] it’s the attitude more than anything. “Let’s just break government.” This wasn’t a thing that was broken. … I had worked for years within the Republican Party vocally attempting to change it. But it got to this point where even the association has been too much.
Why do you think you’ll be able to make more of a difference as a Democrat?
Koesten: I had an amazing group of colleagues, all who identify as moderate Republicans. And I felt I was abandoning them. But there is a hard-right element in the party that is incredibly destructive. The hardcore, fervent religious right—and the outside money—is so overpowering. You want to stay and fight the good fight, but I finally decided I can’t fight from the inside.
Sykes: Kansans, I think in general, are common-sense [people]. We want effective government—not too much—but we want good services. We want good roads. And I think my voice as a Democrat will be able to do that because I won’t be fighting within my party.
Clayton: Within my new caucus, my voice will be heard. It’s difficult within the Republican Party. They tend to silence people who are not following the party line. It would be really nice if the party line was just running things properly—since when is it not Republicans funding schools? But apparently it’s what Republicans do: They advocate for pure chaos. I’m really disappointed that this seems to be what Republicans have become. This is my party, since I was 18. It’s awful to see what’s happened.
What has the response been to your announcement?
Koesten: It’s been overwhelmingly a positive response. You get the trolls on Facebook and Twitter, the people who’ll say, “I knew she was never a Republican to begin with.” It wouldn’t have mattered how I voted or behaved. My Democratic colleagues are really excited. My Republican colleagues have been a little quieter, I think probably for self-preservation. Some of them knew I was going to do this, and they were very supportive.
One of the things I have seen is some people saying, “Oh my gosh, they have cheated their constituents. They’ve been dishonest.” And I’m thinking, there’s not one of us that wasn’t incredibly transparent what we ran on, what our values are, why we were running. So I don’t feel any of us owes an apology for saying we can no longer exist in this space that is so hostile to a different point of view.
Sykes: Mostly, it has been very supportive. There have been calls from other states about how my changing party is the downfall [of the country]. Oh, I didn’t realize I had that much power.
Clayton: Locally, the response is positive. Some response from folks out of state that are less than pleased with what I’ve done—I wonder if they kiss their mothers with that mouth. But it’s normal when you’re in public life, and particularly normal if you’re female.
Are you worried about your political future?
Koesten: Since I’m no longer in office, it means getting involved in the local Democratic organization. I think we’ll have opportunities in the years to come. I think [the state] is not as far right as was represented in the last election. And I’m hoping to prove that’s true.
Sykes: I will run for re-election. Would I be better to run as a Republican and possibly lose in a primary? To someone more conservative? And have to run against a Democrat in a general? How do you protect a moderate voice? In the end, I think this was the best decision. I hope my voting record will stand for itself. I’m very engaged in my community. So many voted [for me] because of who I am, not based on the letter behind my name. But I know there are people who vote based on parties. I think that’s part of what’s wrong with our country, because we don’t really dig in and find out who people are.
Clayton: I haven’t really thought about that, because if you make plans based on electability, then you don’t deserve to be there. You need someone to make bold decisions.