Some Kansas Democrats are availing their fundraising muscle to help moderate Republicans retain control of the state Senate as conservative candidates step up to challenge moderate incumbents across the state.
The cross-party aid underscores concern among moderate Republicans and Democrats that the state will shift too far to the political right after next November’s elections, giving Gov. Sam Brownback nearly unstoppable power to push his agenda though the Statehouse.
Though the definitions of “conservative” and “moderate” are in the eye of the beholder and shifts with the nuances of each debate, many observers think conservatives could claim control of the Senate with two to six victories in next fall’s election. Currently, the Senate has 32 Republicans and eight Democrats.
Nine Senate Republican primary races are already shaping up, including two of the Senate districts with constituents in Sedgwick County. Political newcomer Gary Mason, CEO of iSi Environmental Services, plans to run against second-term Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick. And ninth-term Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, has filed to run against Sen. Jean Schodorf, a third-term Wichita Republican and majority whip.
Tom and Jill Docking, two of the most well-known Democrats in state politics, recently threw a fundraising event for Schodorf. Jill Docking said her Democratic friends looked at each other during the event, feeling strange about helping a Republican.
The first rule of cross-party fundraising is to ask the candidate whether they’re comfortable having Democrats on their campaign finance reports, she said. Docking said she has heard several Republicans are open to it.
Docking said she supports candidates who are willing to compromise and want to ensure the state provides more than the bare minimum for education and social services.
“I think it’s important for Kansas to hold the middle,” she said. “And right now the middle is that group of moderate Republicans who I think are conservative financially and make decisions most Kansans would agree with.”
Landwehr said she’s not surprised Democrats are helping Schodorf.
“Jean has spent her election nights with Democrats,” she said.
Schodorf embraces help outside her party.
“I have bipartisan supporters,” she said. “They’re my friends.”
Both say the focus should remain on helping Kansans find jobs and turning the economy around.
Impact on session
Pressure from conservative candidates, many of whom filed much earlier than normal, and infighting in the Republican Party will be noticeable this year, said Chapman Rackaway, an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.
The House is controlled by conservatives, and a change of six seats could give conservatives control of the Senate, he said.
“It’s going to very hard for them to work together,” he said of the conservatives and moderates in the Senate. “It’s one of those things that is under the surface, but is going to affect everything visible on the surface.”
Rackaway said the dynamics are unpredictable and that pressure from conservatives could help Brownback’s agenda move through the Senate, which resisted some of his policies last year. It’s tough for a politician to move too far to the right in an election year in Kansas, Rackaway said.
He predicted candidates will spend big on campaigns and that voters can expect postal workers to bring them piles of political mail.
Several lawmakers said they expect a steady flow of “postcard votes” – that’s when someone amends a bill or proposes something that they know won’t pass just to get opponents on the record voting one way or another.
It’s unclear how conservative challenges to senators will bode for Brownback’s agenda. Brownback said many senators will base their decisions on school finance based on how the numbers look for their school districts. But he said some lines may be drawn on tax policy, including the one he plans to present in his state of the state address Jan. 11.
Sen. Susan Wagle, a conservative Republican from Wichita, said that with redistricting, school finance, tax policy and economic uncertainty from Europe to America, more people are tuned in to what’s happening in Topeka. But she said 2012 will be an unpredictable year.
“I don’t know how it will play out,” she said. “This is a very unusual time. We’re in a very unpredictable economic environment and political environment.”