TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republicans on Saturday narrowly picked an activist who has promoted unfounded election conspiracies and promised a shakeup to lead the Kansas GOP for the next two years, following weeks of infighting that mirrors the acrimony in the party across the U.S.
Within 30 minutes of the change in the Kansas Republican Party’s leadership, its state committee reviewed a resolution demanding that the U.S. House impeach President Joe Biden for “tyranny” over comments he and his aides made in the summer of 2021 decrying misinformation about coronavirus vaccines spreading within the GOP. The committee tabled the resolution until its next meeting.
The Kansas state committee elected Mike Brown, who has long been active in the GOP in the Kansas City area, as its new chair through the 2024 elections. The vote came three months after Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly narrowly won reelection and the only Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, won another term handily in her Kansas City-area district.
The Kansas party’s retiring chair, Mike Kuckelman, and its two other Republican National Committee members supported RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel when she won reelection last month. But Brown called on McDaniel to resign in December, and he said Saturday that the national GOP is seeing an internal “uprising” from members still upset over COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
“The RNC needs to be paying very close attention to that,” Brown said. “It is the future of our party.”
Last year, Brown ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for Kansas secretary of state. Both he and his opponent, Helen Van Etten, a longtime Topeka activist and former RNC member, promised to revive the Kansas party. But Brown asked fellow Republicans whether they were happy with the results of the past two governor’s races, won by Kelly, and Davids’ election victories.
The vote — with Brown prevailing 90-88 — occurred against the backdrop of the GOP’s unexpectedly poor showing in the 2022 midterms, when it won fewer than expected U.S. House seats and failed to recapture a U.S. Senate majority.
In Kansas, the GOP holds a voter registration advantage, which means that Democrats win big races by attracting votes from moderate Republicans and independent voters, while Republicans generally prevail when the party is unified.
“We need to have more unity,” state Rep. Patrick Penn, a Wichita Republican, told fellow GOP committee members. “That’s the crux of it.”
Some Republicans framed the contest between Brown and Van Etten as a fight between an anti-establishment wing and the establishment.
The infighting ahead of Saturday’s vote was especially intense in Johnson County, in the Kansas City area, the state’s most populous county and home for both Brown and retiring State Chair Mike Kuckelman. The county’s affluent suburbs once were GOP strongholds, but since 2018, they’ve become conspicuously more Democratic — and have been crucial to Kelly’s and Davids’ victories.
The Johnson County GOP’s new chair, a Brown ally concerned about the county’s “purple creep,” told GOP state committee members that Kuckelman had been “absolutely abhorrent” in his treatment of Brown. Kuckelman fired back with several emails, including one accusing Brown of being soft in opposing abortion and supporting gun rights.
With the Republican National Committee, McDaniel overcame opposition from the ultra-Make America Great Again wing of the party despite having been picked for the job in 2016 by former President Donald Trump.
In Michigan, two statewide GOP candidates who denied President Joe Biden’s election victory in 2020 were seeking party offices ahead of a convention next weekend. In Nebraska last year, Republicans who support Trump fired the state chair during a tumultuous convention following a Trump-backed candidate’s loss in the GOP primary for governor.
Brown has promoted unfounded theories that Trump’s supporters have used to bolster the former president’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. He is a construction contractor who served on the Johnson County Commission before losing his seat in 2020.
Brown lost the GOP primary for secretary of state to Republican incumbent Scott Schwab, who has vouched for the integrity of Kansas elections.
Van Etten, a retired audiologist, served on the RNC from 2008 to 2020. She also is a former member of the state board that oversees Kansas’ higher education system.
She promised state committee members a “very aggressive” program of building local party organizations: “We’re ready and willing to unite the party.”
One supporter, conservative Kansas City-area economist, researcher and consultant Michael Austin, said: “We need experience. We need connections.”
During the state committee meeting, Kuckelman defended current party leaders’ record, noting that the party has no debt.
Kim Borchers, a longtime Topeka activist who serves on the RNC, defended McDaniel and pushed back pointedly on complaints against the party establishment. She had the state committee members with more than five years’ of experience stand.
“Welcome to the establishment,” she said. “I call that commitment.”
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