TOPEKA — The battle for control of the Kansas Senate is building during this year’s legislative session as lawmakers unfurl redistricting maps that lock out opponents and a flurry of tax-reduction plans inches closer to divisive votes.
The 40-member Senate remains a stronghold for moderate Republican views, but conservative challengers hope to change that. With a few victories over moderate Republicans in the August primary election, state politics and policy could veer decidedly toward more conservative ideals.
That could mean lower taxes, more cuts in government services and more conservative policies against immigration, abortion and social welfare programs. With so much at stake, some observers say the traditionally uneventful Senate primaries could be more important to the average Kansan’s life than congressional or presidential races this fall.
“If at least four (of the conservative challengers) win, then there’s probably enough momentum in the Senate to get them on the same page as the House and Gov. Brownback,” said Chapman Rackaway, a Republican and a political science professor at Fort Hays State University. “Gov. Brownback would have nothing to stop his agenda from being passed 100 percent.”
Incumbents usually have an inherent name recognition advantage, more robust fundraising campaigns, and help from major organizations and business groups. But conservative challengers have unusually powerful allies this year.
Businesses large and small have given thousands of dollars to the Kansas Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, which, in turn, has given thousands to eight conservative challengers as a coalition of anti-tax groups sets their sights on senators they see as a roadblock to eliminating income taxes for individuals and small business.
The chamber explained its reasoning in a January news release after campaign finance reports were released for 2011.
“The Governor and Kansas House have demonstrated a willingness to support pro-business legislation,” the chamber said. “However, many serving currently in the Kansas Senate do not support the Chamber PAC’s agenda to create a business environment with limited government intrusion and a decreased tax burden.”
Both sides will be struggling to catch the limited attention span of everyday voters, who will likely be flooded with political attacks from the presidential race on down.
Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, R-Lindsborg, said it’s important for people to focus on local political races.
“That has a more direct impact on their everyday life than who the president of the United States is, in my opinion,” he said.
At least eight moderate incumbent Republican senators face a primary election challenge this year, and largely from well-established candidates who are focused on tax cuts.
In the Wichita area, businessman Gary Mason has announced he’ll run against Sen. Carolyn McGinn in the 31st District, which covers northeastern Sedgwick County and Harvey County. And conservative House Rep. Brenda Landwehr has filed to run against Sen. Jean Schodorf in the 25th District in northwest Wichita.
Elsewhere, Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, faces a challenge from conservative Rep. Larry Powell, of Garden City. Rep. Greg Smith, R-Overland Park, is running against Sen. Tim Owens, also from Overland Park. Rep. Tom Arpke, R-Salina, plans to contest Sen. Pete Brungardt, of Salina. In Topeka, Rep. Joe Patton has mounted a campaign against Sen. Vicki Schmidt. And Sen. Roger Rietiz of Manhattan faces a race with Bob Reader.
“There are certainly important public policy implications with the change of philosophy if the Senate would be controlled by ultra conservatives,” Morris said of the races.
He said it’s tough to speculate what types of legislation would be more likely to sail through. But one that he noted is initiative and referendum, the California-style process by which any citizen can initiate legislation and gather petitions to repeal existing laws.
Rep. Powell, who is challenging Morris, said he doesn’t foresee initiative and referendum being a major issue. It’s one he tends to oppose.
“That’s a big deal for agriculture,” he said. “We don’t want that.”
He said nonprofit organizations could use that to go after animal agriculture.
“People elect representatives to do things, not to have the people vote,” he said.
Powell instead sees a shift toward more business-friendly policies, which he sees as more likely to gain support with Brownback’s administration. A primary example is tax cutting.
“I think the people can spend their money better than government,” Powell said.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said there’s a lot at stake, especially with school funding.
Conservatives, he said, would likely shift more funding responsibility to local districts, which has the potential to put pressure on districts to increase property taxes.