TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce scored big wins in the August primary, when candidates backed by the chambers ousted eight incumbent Republican senators they viewed as too moderate and won several other key races.
It all but assured conservative Republican control of the Senate and potentially added strength to the majority in the House. Now Republicans hope to widen the margin and knock off a few long-time Democrats to further bolster their dominance.
But not so fast, some moderate Republicans and Democrats say.
“There are no easy races this year,” said Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon. “That just needs to be understood.”
The general election on Nov. 6 could make or break a conservative stronghold capable of garnering the two-thirds majorities required to change how the state appoints appellate and supreme court judges – as well as ensuring support for most, if not all, of Brownback’s plans.
And a combination of turnover and redistricting could result in a bigger class of new lawmakers than the Statehouse has seen in recent memory.
Although Republicans are virtually assured of majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats still hold out hope that voters will add to their numbers, offering a counter to Brownback’s conservative plans.
Meanwhile, Republicans sense they could knock off one or more incumbent Senate Democrats.
Clay Barker, executive director of the Republican Party of Kansas, said Republicans are targeting about five races, hoping to oust incumbent Senate Democrats Laura Kelly, Kelly Kultala, Anthony Hensley, Allen Schmidt and Tom Holland.
Barker said the pressure will be on Republicans to prove to voters that their philosophy and follow-through work.
“It’s a little bit like the English parliament,” he said. “Whatever party wins … their agenda gets passed. And if it works they get re-elected.”
Wagnon said Democrats have some strong candidates that could upset Republicans, but she said both parties are dealing with the unknowns of new political districts that were drawn up by federal judges after a legislative stalemate on redistricting earlier this year.
Democrats are counting on moderate Republicans to think Brownback has taken the state too far to the right with the massive income tax cut he signed into a law and other conservative policies, said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University and a Republican.
“This stuff is so far right that now you have to vote Democratic to restore sanity, is their angle,” he said.
As in the primary, the election is largely about what Brownback wants to accomplish and whether voters want to shift farther to the right.
“In the end, the governor’s agenda is going to get through and it’s going to get through pretty much whole,” Rackaway said. Even Republicans who are skeptical or don’t like part of Brownback’s agenda will likely fall in line, he added.
“If you do vote against that agenda, you end up going the way of Steve Morris, Pete Brungardt and the rest,” he said, noting incumbent Senate Republicans who lost in the primary.
Top issues for 2013
Big issues abound for the new class of lawmakers.
When lawmakers convene in Topeka in January, they’ll likely immediately re-open the debate on taxes.
That’s because the bill cutting income tax rates for individuals and eliminating income taxes for more than 191,000 businesses has flaws that must be fixed if the state wants to avoid significant backlash from businesses who fear the flaws could add to their tax burden.
With the jar open on the tax bill, many expect Brownback to ask for an extension of a sixth-tenths of a cent sales tax in order to balance revenue lost to income tax cuts. And the debate might also touch again on eliminating popular tax credits and deductions.
Meanwhile, some Republicans and Democrats will seek to once again block an expected push to change how appellate court judges and, perhaps, state Supreme Court judges are nominated.
Conservatives, some of whom see those judges as a roadblock to even stricter anti-abortion laws and school finance reforms, hope to replace the panels of lawyers who currently nominate judges with a system that mirrors the U.S. Supreme Court judicial appointment process – the governor would pick judges and the Senate would confirm them.
Illegal immigration is a squishy issue that could divide even conservative Republicans as groups such as the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which promotes more work visas for illegal immigrants, collide with anti-illegal-immigration sentiment amplified by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a national figure in the fight against illegal immigration.
Another big unknown is the state’s never-ending battle over school finance, which is awaiting a court ruling.
Democrats have blasted Brownback for education cuts in a series of mail ads.
The governor has approved budgets with less per pupil spending.
But, although he has appointed an education efficiency task force and says not enough money goes into the classroom, Brownback has approved increases in overall education spending, some of which is attributed to the state’s increasing obligation to its pension system.
Rackaway says he thinks the Democrats’ attack on Republican education cuts probably will be canceled out by Republican attacks that tie Democrats to President Obama and his Affordable Care Act.
Both parties expect the attack ads to increase as political action committees begin pushing ads on TV, radio and direct mail.
Wagnon said if she could offer just one thought to voters, it would be to pay attention.
“Look closely at the candidates. Don’t pay attention to the labels. Listen to what they’re saying and find the people who are most connected to your community,” she said.