The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the health care law may have provided the frame in which 2012 Kansas campaigns will be conducted, but three weeks before an even more pivotal decision came down: The districts in which those campaigns will be conducted were redrawn by a federal district court instead of the Kansas Legislature.
Some important lessons can be learned from what will be Kansas’ political geography for the next decade.
The court map changed Kansas’ state legislative borders drastically. The significant changes to all House and Senate districts suggest the court slapped the Legislature’s wrists for failing to complete its redistricting duty. Nearly a quarter of the Kansas Senate will be freshmen because of the maps, as will more than a third of the House.
For years, disgruntled voters have talked a good game about “throwing the bums out.” Dissatisfaction with politics has led some to claim established politicians should be ejected from office.
Whether the sentiment emerges through term limits or recalls, people love the idea of forcing change on legislatures. But incumbents win re-election at a rate of 90 percent at times of drastic changes, so the public’s desire to throw the bums out is forgotten in voting booths.
The new maps promise change. But don’t expect new brooms to sweep Topeka clean in 2012.
State Republicans, already stocked with a surplus of candidates planning for a Gov. Sam Brownback-friendly takeover of the Senate, had the advantage of an established farm team. Kansas Democrats will fail to contest nine Senate and 33 House seats, while Republicans will pass on just five House districts and none in the Senate. Republicans have contested primaries in almost three-quarters of Senate districts and nearly half of House seats. The deep GOP bench means both chambers will continue to be dominated by Republicans, and may shift the Senate further right.
The incumbents have massive advantages toward re-election, too. Candidates had to file, calculate their new districts’ partisanship and immediately start fundraising.
Primary campaigns will last less than two months, sounding wonderful to critics of long American contests. But short campaigns favor incumbents with experience campaigning. Inexperienced campaigners without connections to existing political power bases will struggle to build a campaign capable of communicating their message in a short time.
The promise of a significant infusion of new blood into the Legislature is seriously threatened by a short campaign season that favors established candidates with name recognition, experience campaigning and a fundraising base.
We also will get an intense campaign season because of its brevity. Incumbents, who were barred from fundraising during the legislative session, have gone from a thousand dollars in their campaign accounts to a hundred thousand in a matter of days. A rush to verify voter databases followed, as candidates struggled to know which voters they must reach out to and which are now in other districts. Advantage: incumbents.
In the end, voters respond to names they recognize and to well-crafted campaign messages. Change is rare in legislatures, and this year looks to be no different. Voters in Kansas may think they’ve been handed the change they’ve dreamed of, but while the faces may change the game likely will stay the same.