Politics & Government

August 7, 2012

Conservative candidates win most Kansas Senate races

Backed by a waterfall of dollars from political action committees and other outside groups, conservative Republican senate candidates won all but a few key races over Republicans who were labeled more moderate during bruising campaigns.

Backed by a waterfall of dollars from political action committees and other outside groups, conservative Republican senate candidates won all but a few key races over Republicans who were labeled more moderate during bruising campaigns.

The victories will likely pave the way for Gov. Sam Brownback’s agenda for at least the next two years, although general election challenges by Democrats could change that.

“If this was a referendum on Sam Brownback, Brownback won,” said Kansas State University political scientist Joe Aistrup. “Right now, the Republican Party in the state of Kansas is willing to be a little redder and a little more conservative.”

Watching results come in from across the state, Sen. Carolyn McGinn of Sedgwick acknowledged that she may be the only surviving moderate in the Senate:

“Wow,” she said. “What kind of life is that going to be?"

In the Wichita area, Wichita City Council member Michael O’Donnell, who is known for his stance against subsidies in City Hall, defeated third-term Republican Sen. Jean Schodorf, who holds a key place as chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

O’Donnell will face Democrat Timothy Snow in November. Meanwhile, Rep. Dan Kerschen defeated Sen. Dick Kelsey in a race that baffled some observers because Kelsey is widely viewed as a staunch conservative, but drew an opponent after balking at Brownback’s tax and Medicaid reform plans.

Statewide, nine incumbent Republican senators, including Senate President Steve Morris, were poised to lose their positions as an onslaught of conservative challengers with strong backing from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and other political groups won over the relative modest percent of voters who turned out to vote.

Meanwhile, McGinn, who is chair of the senate’s powerful ways and means committee, held off challenger, businessman Gary Mason, who had to move from Wichita to Park City to run for the seat after redistricting maps were released this spring.

“We don’t know the results,” McGinn told her supporters about 10:30 p.m. “We’re ahead. Yay. We hope it continues that way, but one of the things I think is most important is for me, I believe, what is good for the 31st District is good for our state.”

Mason said he feels the campaign forced McGinn to more conservative stances, and he said he at least changed the debate.

"I just felt we weren’t getting representation for our district that was consistent with the concerns and the beliefs of the people in this district,” he said.

As results slowly came in from the Sedgwick County Election Commissioner’s office, some grew impatient.

Kelsey sent about 50 people attending his party at the Haysville Learning Center home just before 10 p.m., complaining that it may be Wednesday before results are known.

In a speech, he said that his opponent’s victory was on the strength of what Kelsey estimates was about $100,000 spent on fliers and radio spots attacking Kelsey as a businessman and as a person. After his speech, he said Koch Industries has targeted about a dozen Republican senators, wanting to replace them with people more amenable to Koch political believes.

“If my opponent wins, on the basis of all this money spent in the last few days of the campaign, it will change the nature of politics in this state for a generation," Kelsey said. For one thing, he said, many people won’t want to run for office and risk being savaged, as he said he was.

McGinn, who was in Newton, sent her supporters home around 10:30 p.m. without final results.

“Maybe we’ll know more, and maybe we’ll find out at midnight tonight watching TV from our homes,” she told supporters.

Her opponent, Gary Mason, said that McGinn very obviously moved from moderate to conservative during the campaign.

"I think her moving that way was a statement in our success as a campaign and what we were able to accomplish.

"Whatever happens tonight, I think we can feel good about that.” Mason said.

Elsewhere in the state, Rep. Tom Arpke, who had strong backing from Brownback-aligned groups, took an early lead over incumbent Sen. Pete Brundgardt. Rep. Larry Powell opened a small lead over Senate President Steve Morris. And Bob Reader took a lead over incumbent Sen. Roger Reitz.

Republicans have long dominated state politics, but in 2010, limited government candidates aligned more with tea party ideals than traditional Republican thinking, took over most of state government, led by Gov. Sam Brownback.

Brownback made cutting taxes, shrinking government and privatizing services for the poor and disabled the cornerstone of his agenda. He has consistent support from the House, where Republicans hold a powerful 92-33 majority. But his plans have met resistance in the Senate, where Democrats and moderate Republicans formed a majority to block some of the most aggressive parts of Brownback’s agenda.

The growing divide between Republican senators reached critical mass this year with political financing groups controlled by chambers of commerce, unions, trade groups and other special interests picking sides in a battle for control of the Senate, viewed as the last stronghold for traditional Republicans and the only remaining obstacle for Brownback’s vision for Kansas.

That led to a deadlock on reapportionment and turned the drawing of district lines over to a federal court, which scrambled the political landscape, forcing some incumbents to run against each other and leaving some district open.

Both Kerschen and O’Donnell received help from the state and local chamber PACs, who sought out conservative candidates who tend to be more aligned with Brownback’s agenda.

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which made the elimination of income taxes its primary goal, first targeted eight incumbent Republicans, including Carolyn McGinn and Jean Schodorf in the Wichita region. But the field grew, and at least 18 races pitted Republican senate candidates against each other, most of which feature a candidate backed by Brownback-aligned political fundraisers.

Though not a precise science, most observers feel Brownback-backed politicians could take control of the senate by controlling four more seats — enough to give them control of the calendar and the 21 votes needed to pass most legislation. That appeared to be completed with Tuesday’s results. In November if Republicans can win some of the eight seats held by Democrats.

The highly divisive primary battles drew millions of dollars in campaign cash.

Heavy-hitters including the Teamsters Union, Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Kansas National Education Association and others poured huge donations primarily into Senate races.

Koch Industries gave $125,000 to the Kansas Chamber of Commerce PAC, which announced support for Brownback-aligned conservative candidates late last year and gave hundreds of thousands to conservative candidates who sought to defeat incumbent Republican senators.

Koch gave another $20,000 to the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce PAC, fueling similar ads aimed at knocking out incumbent Republicans the Chamber once supported. Wichita oilman and Brownback supporter David Murfin gave $80,000 to the state chamber to help pay for ads attacking incumbent Republican senators.

On the other side, Senate President Steve Morris’ Senate Republican Leadership Committee PAC pumped $100,000 into the Kansas Jobs PAC to pay for ads attacking conservative Republicans who challenged incumbent Senators. That added to the Jobs PAC’s cashflow from organized labor groups, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the national education association and the carpenters’ union from St. Louis.

And the Jobs PAC funneled money to the Wichita-based Kansas Values PAC, which also attacked Republicans who challenged incumbent or moderate Republican senate candidates.

Moderate senate candidates had support of some gambling interests, including the PAC associated with the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane and Phil Ruffin, who owns the closed Kansas Greyhound Park.

Individually, Schodorf and McGinn raised more money than their challengers. Schodorf had $115,000 to O’Donnell’s $72,000 and McGinn had nearly $190,000 to Mason’s $70,000, which included more than $23,000 in his own money.

However, the field was leveled by outside spending. The Kansas Chamber PAC invested about $36,000 on O’Donnell and $7,500 on Mason; and The Wichita Metro Chamber PAC, which made about $6,200 in independent expenditures for O’Donnell and $3,800 for Mason, according to campaign finance forms.

Schodorf benefitted from outside money as well, picking up $15,000 from Ruffin’s Kansas Wins PAC and another $4,000 from a PAC affiliated with the Kansas National Education Association. The KNEA PAC also put about $2,600 behind McGinn.

Kelsey was slightly outraised by Kerschen, $38,000 to $44,000, and independent expenditure groups inundated voter mailboxes with pro-Kerschen and anti-Kelsey ads.

The Kansas Chamber PAC spent nearly $36,000 backing Kerschen and the Wichita Chamber PAC kicked in $9,600.

Contributing: Dion Lefler, Beccy Tanner, Suzanne Perez Tobias, Roy Wenzl and Bill Wilson of The Wichita Eagle.

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