A couple of years ago, any candidate raising more than $100,000 to run for the Kansas Senate would draw gasps.
Now Senate candidates — along with people running for the House — are ringing up huge numbers, pumping millions into a battle between moderate and conservative Republicans that will shape the future of Gov. Sam Brownback’s conservative agenda.
Throw in thousands of dollars more in outside money from such groups as the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas National Education Association, Americans for Prosperity and gambling interests and Tuesday’s primary is smashing fundraising benchmarks.
“This is easily going to break all kinds of records,” said Joe Aistrup, a Kansas State University political scientist.
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Candidate fundraising has already set records for Kansas primaries, said Carol Williams, executive director of the Kansas Commission on Governmental Ethics.
In the first seven months of this year, Senate candidates raised $2.2 million, an 80 percent increase from the primaries four years ago. On the House side, candidates have raised almost $1.6 million, 25 percent more than in 2008.
By contrast, in 1984, House and Senate candidates each spent about $1.3 million for the primary and the general election.
“We were kind of shocked back in 2008 that we saw a couple of campaigns that had raised $100,000,” Williams said. “Now we’ve exceeded that in numerous races.”
Sen. Vicki Schmidt of Topeka, a moderate Republican in a hot re-election race against conservative Joe Patton, has raised $106,000 this year. Add fundraising efforts from last year and Schmidt has amassed more than $200,000.
Patton also started raising money last year and he has raked in about $68,000. Yet he still thinks he’s at a disadvantage.
“It’s a real David-and-Goliath contest,” Patton said. “We raised enough to get our message out, and our message was I am the conservative in the race.”
In western Kansas, Senate candidate John Miller put $105,000 of his own money into the race against Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer of Grinnell, a conservative. Senate president Steve Morris, a moderate Republican, raised $88,790 this year and about $180,000 in the last two years, records show.
The fundraising fury is one result of the political struggle between moderate and conservative Republicans over who will control the Senate, which has often been an obstacle to Brownback’s legislative agenda.
While many conservatives drew their money from traditional sources, moderate Republicans joined with teacher groups, labor unions and gambling interests usually associated with Democratic candidates.
“What’s happened is that the more moderate forces in the Republican Party — the individuals who are to be purged, so to speak — have put up a darn good fight,” Aistrup said. “They have raised money far beyond the capacity that I think most of us thought they would be able to.”
Johnson County also is seeing pricey campaigns, although not on Schmidt’s level.
Rep. Kay Wolf of Prairie Village has raised about $89,000 for her Senate race against conservative candidate David Harvey. Wolf put $35,000 of her own money into the Senate race. Harvey raised $20,895.
In Leawood, Rep. Pat Colloton has been trying to catch up to businessman Jeff Melcher, who raised most of his money last year. After deciding to get in the race in June, Colloton quickly raised $66,000. Melcher has raised about $87,000.
Looming large in the campaigns of moderate candidates is the Kansas Senate Leadership political action committee controlled by Morris.
That PAC raised $126,000 this year, with $50,000 coming from the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane. Records show it also received $12,500 from the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce and $20,000 from the Kansas Contractors Association.
The PAC money is going directly to moderate Republican Senate candidates or flowing into other political action committees that are donating to Republican moderates such as Wolf, Colloton and Joe Beveridge of Lenexa.
Much of the cash flowing into campaigns this year is coming from independent expenditures by groups seeking to influence the outcome of Tuesday’s primary.
The Kansas Chamber of Commerce has spent $140,000 helping conservative Senate candidates with campaign advertising, including at least $54,000 for Melcher, Harvey and Senate candidates Jim Denning and Greg Smith. Overall, the chamber has spent more than $300,000 supporting conservative candidates.
Meanwhile, the political action committee for the Kansas Realtors spent about $200,000 this year, including roughly $60,000 on independent expenditures for candidates. The group also spent about $24,000 on direct mail pieces for Wolf and Colloton.