In forums, candidates for Sedgwick County judgeships introduce themselves to voters by talking about their judicial temperament, their work ethic, their experience and knowledge of the law.
And, of course, where they stand on abortion.
Eleven judicial candidates vie for five seats in the Aug. 7 Republican primary election, and all have professed to being anti-abortion.
But some say that a huge advantage in the primary will go to the four candidates who came away with the endorsement of the political action committee for Kansans For Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group.
Incumbent judge Phil Journey, who is on the primary ballot, estimated that a Kansans For Life endorsement can deliver 25 percent of the votes needed to win a Republican judicial primary election.
“They’re the 800-pound gorilla in Republican politics,” he said.
District Judge Clark Owens, who is retiring after more than 21 years in office, said a KFL endorsement plays a major role in any Republican judicial primary.
“I would say it’s the most important thing,” he said. “For an incumbent, if he doesn’t get that endorsement, he can be very vulnerable.”
Owens considers himself to be anti-abortion, but he has never been challenged in an election and therefore has never been endorsed by KFL.
David Gittrich, state development director for Kansans For Life, said he sometimes wonders if the candidates overestimate the importance of the PAC’s endorsement.
“I’m a little surprised they all give us the credit they do,” he said.
But he said Kansans For Life voter guides, which carry the names of endorsed candidates, have been mailed to 150,000 anti-abortion households on the group’s mailing list.
Some judicial candidates envision thousands of Sedgwick County voters taking the guides into polling booths and voting straight down the line for KFL-endorsed candidates.
Although a KFL endorsement might play a role in any election, some judicial candidates said the effect is magnified in the judges’ races, where voter interest is typically low and there are few issues to set candidates apart.
Former judge David Kennedy spent 28 years on the bench and was never seriously challenged until 2006, when he faced Robb Rumsey, who had a Kansans For Life endorsement. Kennedy lost by 524 votes out of 23,724 cast.
Kennedy said part of his problem was low turnout; the race drew nearly 10,000 fewer voters than his Republican primary four years earlier. But he said the KFL endorsement of his opponent may have been the coup de grace.
“They’re not that big an organization, but I do know they vote,” he said. “Phil may be right; it may be 25 percent if you’ve got the KFL endorsement.”
Not everyone is convinced that a KFL endorsement guarantees a victory.
“I don’t think it has as big an effect as all the candidates think it does,” said Rachael Pirner, who recently completed a term as president of the Kansas Bar Association.
“It has been curious to me to see the vigor with which the candidates have clamored to get those endorsements,” Pirner said. “We have had judges who have been re-elected that did not receive the KFL endorsement.”
At the same time, she said, “I can see where that endorsement would be particularly important in a Republican primary.”
How KFL endorses
Gittrich said a variety of factors go into a judicial endorsement, including interviews, a candidate questionnaire and recommendations from a judicial panel that researches the candidates. An anti-abortion candidate who does not plan to wage a serious campaign, or who does not have the temperament and qualifications to be a judge, will not win a KFL endorsement, he said. If there are two equally qualified anti-abortion candidates and one has been involved in Kansans For Life activities, he said, that candidate will probably receive the endorsement.
Although abortion issues rarely surface in state court cases, Gittrich said, anti-abortion judges are likely to share the values of Kansans For Life members.
He said the group has a practical reason for publishing a voter guide.
“Before we put out the voters guide, I would get hundreds of phone calls asking who to vote for,” he said. “Now we get four or five a week instead of 50 a day.”
In the primary election, the KFL political action committee is endorsing two newcomers – Faith Maughan and Steve Ternes. Gittrich said each has a long history of involvement with Kansans For Life. The group’s PAC also is endorsing incumbent Judge Patrick Walters, who has been endorsed in the past. And it is endorsing incumbent Judge William Woolley. Gittrich said the group had never before interviewed Woolley and was sufficiently impressed to offer him an endorsement.
“The interview process was the same as others I have been through, and I am appreciative of groups, like KFL, recognizing my experience and abilities,” Woolley said of the endorsement.
Anti-abortion, not endorsed
In past years, Gittrich said, KFL has often had to choose between a pro-choice and an anti-abortion candidate. He said it’s becoming more common to have to choose between two anti-abortion candidates. He said that caused some confusion when preparing the voter guide.
In some cases, both candidates are mentioned by name in the guide but neither is endorsed. Journey and his opponent, Linda Kirby, are both mentioned in the guide, but neither has the official endorsement of the Kansans For Life PAC.
Dave Dahl won’t see his name in the KFL voter guide, but there is an asterisk next to the name of his opponent, Faith Maughan, that notes “opponent is also pro-life.”
“I’m happy that at least they acknowledged that I was pro-life,” Dahl said. “I don’t understand what all goes into it, but I am pro-life and they acknowledged that.”
Among those not getting a KFL political action committee endorsement was David Calvert, Woolley’s opponent.
Calvert is a former judge who as a private lawyer specializing in disability law forced the Kansas State Fair to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
He said he was hoping to get the endorsement when he was invited to the Kansans For Life office for an interview June 29.
About a dozen other candidates, most of them seeking judgeships, were interviewed the same night.
“It was pleasant,” Calvert recalled. “It was not confrontational at all. I felt good about the interview. I felt like they got to know me.”
When the endorsements were issued less than two weeks later, Calvert said his reaction was “shock and great disappointment.”
Looking back, Calvert said, he sees what happened. He said the interviews made it clear that the KFL PAC had only one agenda – abortion.
“I have more than one agenda,” he said. “I have an agenda for people who are disabled, people who are elderly, and people who are unborn.”
Calvert said a judicial candidate who trumpets an anti-abortion view may run into problems if a case involving abortion reaches his or her courtroom. “Anytime the issue comes before the court, you have to disqualify yourself,” he said. “The real pro-life issues go to federal court anyway.”
Calvert said if he had his way, the KFL endorsement would not be a factor in judicial elections.
“It’s much more important than it should be,” he said.