Candidates running for office this fall could, in theory, call up a veritable army of support. For each party in every voting precinct there’s a position for one committeeman and one committeewoman. Across Kansas, that would add up to roughly 14,000 precinct captains. But, most of the positions are likely to be left vacant for the 2016 elections.
Lori Graham is a first-time candidate running for state Senate in District 27.
She’s been knocking on doors in northwest Wichita since January. Right now it’s just her, a handful of volunteers, and list of Republican voters.
But, if Graham wins the primary, she’ll get help from all of the Republican precinct captains in Senate District 27— which could be 80 people. More than 45 Republicans have already signed up, and their names will be at the bottom of the ballot for the primary, when committeemen and women are officially selected.
Wearing a bright red polo shirt with her name embroidered on the front, Graham walks up to the home of Rick McIlvain. She tells him that she’s a small business owner who feels taxes in the state are too high. She says the Kansas legislature could use some fresh faces.
McIlvian says he’s been focusing mainly on the presidential election.
“Boy, you can’t do any worse than the one we got running for president, that’s for sure. What a mess, it’s like the Jerry Springer Show,” McIlvain says.
Although the presidential race won’t be on the Aug. 2 ballot, Graham convinces McIlvian to turn out for the primary election anyway and help her defeat Rep. Suellentrop.
Suellentrop initially owed his Kansas House seat directly to precinct captains. When his predecessor, Jason Watkins, stepped down in 2009, it was the job of precinct captains to appoint a replacement. They also elect county party officers and delegates to central committees.
But the primary job of precinct captains is to work the phones and pound the pavement to get out the vote for their party.
The Republican National Committee recruited thousands of precinct captains ahead of the 2014 midterms. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus noted their impact on C-Span in March of that year.
“We have over 12,000 captains right now nationwide,” Priebus said. “Those captains have teams of volunteers whose job it is to maintain lasting relationships with sets of people in their communities, listening to their concerns, making sure they hear issues that these voters care about.”
The GOP would go on to take back the U.S. Senate that year. The RNC credited hundreds of grassroots campaigns, which benefitted from precinct committee people.
Kelly Arnold, chair of the Kansas Republican Party, remembers this well.
“Elections are won in the precincts. So, on a national level, we know that building a very large operation for our precincts and making sure our precincts are filled helps all candidates, up and down the ballot,” Arnold says.
But the majority of precinct committee positions in Kansas, both for Republicans and Democrats, aren’t filled. There were about a hundred fewer precinct captains in Sedgwick County for the gubernatorial election in 2014 than in the 2012 presidential year.
These vacancies can make it hard for political newcomers like Graham to get elected. Democrats, in the minority across Kansas, are at a particular disadvantage.
Kerry Gooch is the Executive Director of the Kansas Democratic Party. He says it’s been hard to recruit precinct committee people because, unlike on the Republican side, most counties don’t have their own Democratic organizations.
“Our first big push [following the 2014 midterms] was to grow county party organizations all across the state,” Gooch says.
Three self-described geeks in Wichita are trying to build up armies of support, especially for Democratic candidates this year, by mapping every precinct captain position in Kansas. Click on one at Precincts.info and you’ll get a link to the candidacy form. Along with his two fellow geeks, Matt Lee has sent in his own application to be a committeeman.
“In a perfect world, I would like to think that I will run contested against many people for my precinct. And it would great if there were an even better candidate than myself,” Lee says.
So far, Lee doesn’t have any competition. The deadline to file is June 1. Once all the candidacy forms are in, we’ll know exactly how many precinct captain positions will be filled, and how many will be left vacant.
Sean Sandefur is a reporter for KMUW, a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @SeanSandefur.