TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Republicans are fighting over who will lead the Kansas GOP for the next two years, and frustrations over two key election losses last year in the GOP-leaning state have ramped up the acrimony already roiling the party nationally.
The Kansas Republican Party's state committee was set Saturday to pick the officers who will oversee party operations through the 2024 elections. The contest for chair is between Helen Van Etten, a former Republican National Committee member, and Mike Brown, who promoted election conspiracy theories during an unsuccessful run for Kansas secretary of state last year.
Some Republicans frame the contest as pitting the party establishment against an anti-establishment wing. The key issue may be who's perceived as the loudest and most aggressive fighter.
The vote comes 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. With the GOP holding a voter registration advantage, Democrats in Kansas win big races by attracting votes from moderate Republicans and independent voters, while Republicans generally prevail when the party is unified.
"I just hope it doesn't get out of hand," Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, said ahead of Saturday's meeting. "Divided houses fall -- that's just the way it is. There needs to be unity brought back to the party."
The infighting is especially intense in Johnson County in the Kansas City area, the state's most populous county, 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.
Republicans also were fighting ahead of RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel's reelection last month. She faced opposition from the ultra-Make America Great Again wing of the party despite having been picked for the job in 2016 by former President Trump.
In Michigan, two statewide GOP candidates who denied President Joe Biden's election victory in 2020 were seeking party offices. 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.
In Kansas, Van Etten, a retired audiologist, has been a GOP activist for decades and served on the national committee from 2008 to 2020. She also is a former member of the state board that oversees the state's higher education system. She has not held elective office.
She's been described as the establishment candidate. Asked about that, Van Etten said that if she's considered establishment because of her years of service to the GOP, then, "Everybody on the state committee, 70% of them are establishment."
"If you're saying the establishment is who's been an elected official before, that's not me," she said.
Brown, another longtime GOP activist, is a construction contractor who served on the Johnson County Commission before losing his seat in 2020. He lost the GOP primary for secretary of state to Republican incumbent Scott Schwab, who has vouched for the integrity of Kansas elections.
While Brown declined to be interviewed until after Saturday's meeting, he told Republicans in one email, "I clearly scare/rattle the Establishment because they continue to come at me full tilt but I don't go away or quit."
In one December email to fellow Republicans, Brown called on McDaniel to resign as RNC chair.
"There are a goodly number of Republicans who are frustrated with the status quo," said state Sen. Tim Shallenburger, a former state GOP chair and state treasurer. "I'm assuming if you're for Mike Brown, you're wanting change, you're wanting a more bold, loud leadership."
While Kuckelman has not formally endorsed anyone in the chair's race, he praised Van Etten ahead of the meeting as a "unifier."
"People know her nationally in the Republican Party," Kuckelman added.