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Behind enemy lines

Fledgling organizers -- a Democrat in Kansas and a Republican in Berkeley -- don the armor of conviction in unfriendly territory.

August 07, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

Garden City, Kan. — JACQUELINE Bujanda proudly plays the outcast in this table-flat farming community surrounded by grain silos and antiabortion billboards.

At age 24, she endures stares, insults and slammed doors as she performs the political version of peddling Coke in a Pepsi town: She sells the Democratic Party in dark-red western Kansas, a state that hasn't elected a Democratic U.S. senator since Prohibition -- the longest streak in the nation.

Some 1,100 miles away in politically blue Berkeley, James Fullmer is also a political dreamer. In a college town that is among the most liberal in the nation, the Fullerton native is a member of the Berkeley College Republicans and is active on the local GOP central committee.

Only 21, he's eyeing a run for the state Assembly in 2008 in an area where Republicans usually garner 10% of the vote: "I relish being the token conservative. I just don't like being yelled at."

Both party neophytes are rare creatures in American politics, organizers operating deep behind enemy lines. Dismissed and often reviled, they aim to defy long odds as they scour for votes in areas most agree they have little chance of winning.

Yet there's purpose in both places.

"It may seem like a fool's errand, but there are often upsides in creating a presence in seemingly unwinnable places," said Scott Reed, a GOP political consultant who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

For one, hitting foes where they least expect it makes for good politics.

"It makes the other side defend their own turf, which means the less opportunity they have to go after yours," said Dan Schnur, a UC Berkeley political science professor who was a spokesman under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California. "It can also be motivating for your supporters in other places."

Both Bujanda and Fullmer see signs of a better future. Several leading Kansas Republicans, including the former chair of the state GOP, have switched political affiliation to become Democrats since 2004, signaling a possible sea change in state politics. And with Democratic groups splintering, the Berkeley College Republicans have established themselves as the largest political club on a campus long known for its razor-edged radical liberalism.

Still, for both party foot soldiers, the campaign is lonely work.

Rural Kansas businesses are boycotted for Democratic sympathies. At one county clerk's office, workers stared dumbfounded when Bujanda introduced herself as the new Democratic regional field coordinator. "There was total silence," she recalled, "as if what I was doing was just an unheard-of thing."

In Berkeley, vehicles with GOP bumper stickers risk being keyed.

While Fullmer manned a Republican recruitment table on campus, a chaperon for a group of visiting schoolchildren began throwing stones at him.

"I told him he wasn't setting a very good example for the kids," Fullmer recalled. "He got right in my face and said, 'Yeah, what are you going to do about it?'

"That's the level of political discourse people sometimes stoop to around here."

JUST six miles from Garden City, the town of Holcomb is the setting for Truman Capote's novel "In Cold Blood," about a farm family butchered by two drifters in 1959.

Democrats in Finney County -- roughly halfway between Topeka and Denver -- joke that they get even less respect than the killers, both of whom went to the gallows.

"This is probably the most thankless job you can have in this part of the country," said Lon Wartman, head of the county's Democratic Party, which in 2006 claimed 19% of voters. Republicans captured 50%, with 31% unaffiliated.

Wartman says local "closet Democrats" fear losing their jobs if their true leanings become known.

Gary Whitehurst is one who showed his political stripe: The restaurant owner last year hung a placard supporting the Democratic candidate for governor.

"Customers stopped coming in," he recalled. "One regular said, 'I don't like your sign and I won't be back.' Another told his wife that I was a Democrat and that he wasn't going to eat in any Democratic establishment."

Most Finney County Democrats have given up seeking election. "If there's a Republican running for office here, they don't worry about Democratic opponents," said Republican Party Chairman Ward Lloyd, "because there won't be any."

One candidate who bucked that trend was John Doll, who ran for Congress last year in the 1st District.

"My brother said: 'Are you crazy? Jesus Christ would lose to Adolf Hitler if he ran as a Democrat around here,' " said Doll, who got 20% of the vote.

But with an unpopular war in Iraq, the Republican machine is sputtering here, leaving Democrats with a chance -- albeit slight -- to gain ground in 2008.

"It's important that Democrats fight for states like Kansas," said Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter With Kansas?" a 2004 analysis of GOP superiority. "Kansas has turned a corner since I wrote that book."

IN March, Bujanda arrived back in Garden City, where she spent six years as a teen.

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