Only once in Kansas Mennonite history did two members of the same church congregation compete against each other for the same state political office. In 1970 Merrill Raber ran for the state legislature against Ernie Unruh, who had been in office since 1951 for nine two-year terms. Raber and Unruh were both members of the Bethel College Mennonite Church (BCMC).
Unruh had served as an Air Force pilot during World War II. He was proud to be one of four military pilots from his North Newton church congregation. He claimed that he was “not ostracized in any way by the pacifists at the church.” He owned and operated a gasoline station on Main Street between Newton and North Newton. Unruh was a Republican–the party that supported free enterprise and private property. Republicans, in his view, were farmers and family men who held strong moral values. The Democrats were for liquor by the drink and for gambling.
Unruh served on different committees in the legislature, including the powerful Education and Ways and Means committees. In general, he did not take roles of strong political leadership or advocacy. Nor did he hold major positions in local Newton government. His involvement at BCMC was limited to attendance at worship services.
Merrill Raber was employed at Prairie View Community Mental Health Center in Newton. He was a conscientious objector to war and had served with Mennonite Central Committee in Akron, Pennsylvania. He was active in the BCMC, especially in the congregation’s organizational and leadership issues. His work at Prairie View brought him into contact with leading local citizens. Tom Reid, a probate judge, nudged Raber into more active involvement with the Democrat Party.
Although Unruh had been in the Air Force and Raber lacked a military background, they maintained a cordial relationship in the 1970 campaign. They appeared on candidate forums together. Raber was personally committed to diversity. He was proud that members of his church congregation supported both him and his opponent.
Unruh won the 1970 election by a narrow margin of 211 votes. Raber assumed that most members of the BCMC congregation had voted for him rather than for Unruh. The election result showed Unruh’s political vulnerability. Two years later, Richard Walker, a Bethel College graduate and member of the Methodist church, defeated Unruh in the Republican primary and was elected to the Kansas legislature.
Raber went on to a long-term active role in Harvey County Democrat politics. In 1972 he attended the Democrat Party national convention in Miami as an alternate delegate. He then became chairman of the Harvey County Democrat party when the supporters of George McGovern gained a majority of precinct committee members. Mennonite activists, opposed to the Vietnam war, led the McGovern faction. Under Raber’s leadership, Mennonites were more involved in local Democrat party politics than ever before.