On multiple occasions last year, Stephanie Clayton’s Republican Party affiliation led her to seek counsel from her priest. Clayton, a Kansas state representative, was losing sleep. Being a Republican, she says, was “starting to taint my integrity as a human being.” She wanted to know “what kind of a person I was morally by remaining a Republican.”
On December 19, Clayton left the party she had belonged to since she was a teenager and registered as a Democrat. She was one of four women in the Legislature, all from the Kansas City suburbs, who quit the GOP within the span of a week last month. There’s no record of so many defections in such a small period of time in Kansas. But there’s also little precedent—perhaps not since the political realignments of the 1960s—for the rapidity with which voters in suburban districts across the United States have gone from voting for Republicans to voting against them.
Over the last two years, Clayton felt her constituents moving away from the GOP, and particularly from President Donald Trump. “I had to spend a great deal of my energy apologizing for things that Trump said or did,” she says. “Which meant that I was apologizing every 15 minutes because of how many terrible things he says and does.”
Johnson County, which encompasses the Kansas City suburbs, typifies Republican suburbia. Its residents enjoy the highest median income in the state. It’s a place where, in the 1950s, well-educated whites fled the cities in search of good schools, parks, libraries, and racial homogeneity. Today, as suburbia recoils from Trump’s Republican Party, Johnson County is at the vanguard of that increasingly rapid shift.
This transformation over the last two years has scrambled American politics. It was suburbia, and particularly the women who live there, that gave Democrats 40 seats in the House of Representatives in 2018—including a pickup in Johnson County. But the defections in Kansas may signal a new chapter in the country’s political realignment. For the past two years, every extreme Republican policy proposal and offensive presidential utterance has led to questions about whether elected officials would finally break with the party and its leader. For the most part, the answer has been no. The four legislators from Johnson County are the first ones to say yes en masse.
The retreat from the GOP has been felt in suburbs across the country, from Orange County, California, to suburban Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, and New York. Johnson County’s shift was particularly stark. In 2016, its residents helped send Republican Kevin Yoder to Congress by a 10-point margin. Two years later, he lost by the same amount to Democrat Sharice Davids, one of two Native American women elected to Congress last year.
Since 2000, the suburbs, including Johnson County, have slowly shifted from reliably Republican to contested territory as voters with a higher educational level have clustered there. Trump’s candidacy jolted the transition into warp speed. In 2012, Johnson County supported Mitt Romney over Barack Obama by 18 points. In 2016, Trump won it by 3 points.
The four Kansas Republican women who walked away from the party were more liberal than most of their GOP colleagues: pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, comfortable with taxation if it went to schools and roads and public services. All of them expressed in conversations with Mother Jones that they had been fighting with the right wing of their own party to try to enact more moderate policies. Then Trump came along and blew up the whole project by destroying the party’s reputation.
“When I think of Johnson County, I think it’s very much the story of what we’ve seen in suburbia,” says Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas who has tracked the county’s political evolution. Some of these women’s districts, he says, “have gone from being solidly Republican up and down the ballot to now solidly Democratic.”
On both style and substance, the party of Trump looks very different from the one these lawmakers and their constituents would feel comfortable in, says Miller. Trump provides “a kind of political theater” that does not appeal to Johnson County’s “country club” sensibility. Kansas is emerging from eight years of far-right policy that the state’s voters opted to reverse by electing a Democratic governor in November. From Washington, Trump has embraced the social conservatism and government dysfunction that Kansas voters just chose to extricate themselves from.
State Sen. Barbara Bollier, who had spent nearly 10 years in the Legislature and a lifetime as a Republican, was the first to switch parties, doing so on December 12.* (Like the other defectors, she is now caucusing with the Democrats in the new legislative session.) But her breaking point had come in March, when the state party approved a resolution to “oppose all efforts to validate transgender identity.” “It was just awful,” she says. This came on top of a yearslong push by conservatives in her party to cut funding for public schools and oppose an expansion of Medicaid, which Bollier, a retired physician, had (unsuccessfully) fought for.
Bollier shares an office with state Sen. Dinah Sykes, a moderate Republican in her first term. Last year, they began exploring the idea of creating a third party. But they ultimately decided the political system didn’t allow for an effective third party. So Bollier announced that she would become a Democrat; a week later, Sykes and Clayton followed.
When Clayton switched, she felt relief. “The moral and emotional freedom that I feel,” she says, “I can’t explain to you what a weight has been taken off of me by no longer having that association with some of the terrible things that were being done under that party mantle.” It turned out many of her constituents felt the same way. She estimates that the positive responses she received outnumbered the negative ones about 100 to 1. But one comment, which she heard over and over, really struck her. “Many of them said, ‘The only reason I stayed a Republican was so that I could support you in primaries,'” she says. “‘Now that you’ve left, I can leave too. I don’t have to stay.’”
Bollier, whose Senate district overlaps with Clayton’s House district, heard the same thing. Some constituents reported beating her to it. “I switched six months ago,” some wrote to her, she says. “I switched a year ago.”
Election results in their districts bear this out. In 2012, Clayton’s district voted for Romney over Obama by 9 points, according to data compiled by Miller. Four years later, her district chose Clinton by 14 points. In 2018, when the Republican gubernatorial candidate was Trump ally Kris Kobach, the district went for Democrat Laura Kelly by 31 points. (She won the race by 5 points.) In Bollier’s district, Obama beat Romney by 2 points in 2012, then Clinton won it by 21 points. In 2018, Bollier’s constituents chose Kelly by a margin of 66 percent to 27 percent. “Women are leaving the Republican Party, particularly more educated people,” says Bollier. “And that is my district.”
For the last two years, Bollier has watched the moderate wing of the party begin to disintegrate around her. Finding moderates to run for local Republican Party positions is increasingly difficult. “They don’t want to be associated publicly as Republican, and so they won’t run,” she says. “That’s how you really knew the party was losing its ability to have the moderate wing. It’s when the very grassroots-level people say, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t want people to publicly say, “You’re a Republican?”‘”
Johnson County is a harbinger of how severe the rebuke for Republicans may be in suburban areas across the country in 2020. Because in Kansas, Trumpism didn’t start in 2016. It started six years earlier, and the residents of the suburbs have lived with its effects for most of a decade. The rest of the country is just catching up.
In 2010, an arch-conservative, Sam Brownback, was elected governor and embarked on what he called a “real, live experiment” in right-wing governance. He slashed taxes and government services. Class sizes have expanded dramatically in public schools, roads are pocked with potholes, and mental health services have disappeared. “Many of the things that Trump is doing at the national level were first done by Sam Brownback here,” says former state Rep. Joy Koesten, who switched parties along with Bollier, Sykes, and Clayton in December. (She left office four weeks later, having been defeated in a primary last year by a more conservative Republican.) Brownback’s hallmarks, she says, were “putting incompetent people in charge of agencies” and “making sure that agencies didn’t function so that people got angry and went against government.” That kind of deliberate dysfunction is now playing out on the national scale, where the longest government shutdown in history still has no end in sight.
In both Kansas and Washington, conservative Republicans have actively undermined their more moderate colleagues. In the 2012 primaries, Brownback campaigned against moderate Republicans who opposed his policies. On the national level, outside conservative activist groups aligned with the tea party movement helped a new crop of conservatives beat moderates in primaries during the Obama presidency, pushing the GOP to the right. Trump is known to hold grudges against Republicans who cross him. In 2018, both the Kansas Legislature and Congress saw the decimation of the GOP’s moderate ranks, leaving behind a party that is politically right-wing and stylistically Trumpian.
Koesten was recruited by other moderate Republicans for a state House seat in 2016, as was Sykes. To run as a centrist Republican in Kansas is to run without the support of your party. “You get no funding from the party, no logistical help from the party,” says Koesten. Meanwhile, outside groups work against you. If you win, the reception from conservative colleagues is icy. Colleagues “would boo us” at some GOP caucus meetings, Koesten recalls. When she was invited to a national conference on the opioid epidemic, the House speaker never informed her and instead sent one of her colleagues, she says. Bollier was twice stripped of her leadership position on the health committees, the second time in retaliation for her endorsement of Kelly. “We were very aware that we were not welcome,” says Koesten.
Bollier, Koesten, Clayton, and Sykes tell a story about the suburbs not just as Republicans but also as women. Johnson County has a rich history of electing moderate Republican women, many of them drawn into politics from their local PTAs. Their decision to walk away from the party helps illustrate why women throughout America’s suburbs are doing the same. Nationwide, women supported Democrats over Republicans by 19 points in 2018, a record.
“It’s harder for women to stay with a party that has gotten just a lot more misogynistic,” Clayton says. She still can’t believe the party brushed off Trump’s Access Hollywood video, in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. “It was difficult to remain and maintain my self-respect.” If more suburban women are starting to feel the same way, the political realignment may be just beginning.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year of Bollier’s most recent election.