Politics & Government

November 7, 2012

GOP keeps hold on Statehouse; Democrats gain ground with Wichita seats

Republicans piled up a big batch of Statehouse wins Tuesday night, but Democrats made inroads in Wichita legislative seats.

Republicans piled up a big batch of Statehouse wins Tuesday night, but Democrats made inroads in Wichita legislative seats.

The exact breakdown of the incoming class of 2013 legislators remained in question late into the night.

Republicans have a clear majority in both houses, but Democrats appeared poised to hang onto at least eight seats in the Senate, and they held small leads in several other races shortly after midnight.

Democrats lost a seat in western Kansas held by Sen. Allen Schmidt, who was ousted by fellow incumbent Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer. Redistricting put the two incumbents in the same senate district. But Democrats reclaimed the seat held by Sen. Chris Steineger, a former Democrat who switched parties, with a victory by Democrat Pat Pettey in the Kansas City area.

In the Wichita area, Democrats ousted three incumbent Republicans.

Final results from Sedgwick County were posted shortly after 1:30 a.m.

Longtime incumbent Democrat Nile Dillmore defeated Brenda Landwehr, who has served in the House since 1994, in District 92 in central-west Wichita.

But Republican Phil Hermanson defeated Democrat Geraldine Flaharty, who has served in the House since 1995, in the District 98 race in south Wichita that pitted two incumbents against each other.

Former Democratic lawmaker Tom Sawyer beat Republican Rep. Benny Boman in District 95 in southwest Wichita.

Newcomer Patricia Sloop, a Democrat, beat Republican Rep. Joseph Scapa in District 88 in east Wichita.

In other local races, Republican Michael O’Donnell won by about 300 votes over Democrat Tim Snow in a Wichita Senate district that includes Riverside and Orchard Hills. And incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Petersen fended off a strong challenge by Democrat Keith Humphrey.

Clay Barker, executive director of the Republican Party of Kansas, said the election shook out about how he expected, and he said the big victories happened in the primary when conservatives ousted moderate Republicans and claimed control of the Senate, creating a big political shift in the Statehouse.

Barker said Brownback now appears to have all the help he needs, and he won’t be able to point to legislative gridlock as a roadblock. But with so many newcomers who have very independent thinking, it could be a challenge.

“He’s going to be banging his head with some of them,” Barker said.

Tuesday’s election follows months of hard-hitting politics that loaded the airwaves and mailboxes with personal attacks, misleading statements and errors.

Democrats had to issue an apology after they claimed two House representatives voted for a budget that included lower levels of per pupil school funding when, in fact, they had opposed it. Republicans and Democrats battled over which party has done more to harm or protect public schools. And the Kansas Republican Party suggested a Derby Democrat running for the state Senate, Keith Humphrey, who was adopted, changed his name to hide something in a postcard that misspelled Wichita.

And that’s without looking back at the pre-primary battles that led to the ousting of eight incumbent Republican Senators that followed bruising political attacks.

Conservative victories pave the way for Gov. Sam Brownback to fast track his priorities. But with a huge batch of newcomers in the House and Senate, it remains unclear how swiftly his agenda will move through.

And it also remains unclear what alliances may emerge between Democrats and moderate Republicans or what divides may occur between conservative and moderate Republicans.

Meanwhile, conservative victories in the primaries and their victories Tuesday could make things more difficult for Democrats in the Senate.

Incoming lawmakers will face difficult budget decisions. As Kansans cast their votes Tuesday, the state released new estimates showing the state will face a $700 million drop in revenues in the next fiscal year because of large income tax cuts approved earlier this year and the expiration of a 6/10ths of a cent sales tax set to expire in July 2013.

Already, state agencies have prepared budgets that show how they can cut 10 percent of their spending. Brownback administration officials say that’s a worst-case scenario designed to prep the state for unknowns, such as economic troubles stemming from the European economy, unrest in the Middle East or unforeseen disasters.

But Democrats say the new estimates and 10 percent cut scenario prove what they’ve been saying for months – that the tax cut bill will force painful cuts to essential state services.

With conservative majorities in the House and Senate, Brownback will have many allies to back his proposals. But Democrats and some Republicans aim to counter that.

While Brownback hasn’t outlined his proposals for the 2013 session, lawmakers are expected to re-open the income tax-cutting bill approved in a series of political maneuvers earlier this year.

Some say Brownback may look to eliminate some of the tax exemptions and credits that he had proposed axing in his initial tax cut proposal. And Brownback has not voiced opposition to continuing six-tenths of a cent sales tax that is scheduled to expire in July.

Meanwhile, a more conservative Senate is expected to more quickly advance Brownback’s agenda by putting conservatives in key leadership positions that can appoint other conservatives to important committees, which are the gatekeepers for which bills get a serious hearing and which ones fall by the wayside.

It normally takes 63 votes in the House and 21 votes in the Senate to pass a bill, and most expected conservatives to maintain control in the House and, likely, the Senate. In that respect, Republicans have had it easy: During the 2012 legislative session they had a 92-33 advantage in the House and a 32-8 majority in the Senate.

But the power struggle is mostly between conservative Republicans and a coalition of moderate/traditional Republicans and Democrats who have partnered to block some conservative ideas, including a push to change how appellate and Supreme Court judges are selected. Another move would ban the judicial and executive branches from telling the Legislature how much to spend on schools and a largely symbolic vote that would have said no law can force Kansans to carry health insurance.

Those issues and overriding a veto require a two-thirds majority. That’s 84 votes in the House and 27 in the Senate. Recently Republicans uncomfortable with some issues have ventured away from the majority of their party to defeat particularly conservative ideas.

Republicans in the House teamed up in March to approve a constitutional amendment that sought to have voters decide if the state should ban the judicial or executive branches of government from directing the Legislature on how much money it should spend. It was a reaction to orders several years ago where the courts told the legislature it must spend more to adequately fund schools, and it could be seen as possible preparation for the outcome of a pending school finance lawsuit.

The idea had support from Brownback and House Speaker Mike O’Neal. It got an initial 91-31 vote, but it fell five votes short the next day. Some leaders credited a partnership between all 33 Democrats in the House and some moderate Republicans for the vote.

The House did, however, have the two-thirds support earlier this year to advance a resolution to the Senate that would let voters decide if they want to amend the Kansas Constitution to say that no law can force people to buy health insurance, a move aimed at President Obama’s health care reform. They voted 91-27 in favor.

That vote – in the House and Senate – proved critical. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce and other conservative groups used it to try to brand Democrats and moderate Republicans as being on board with Obamacare.

But the resolution was altered by moderate Republicans in the Senate who added the caveat that voters wouldn’t decide the issue if the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Obamacare is constitutional, which is essentially did weeks later.

Even with that amendment, the idea failed to pass the Senate where a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats blocked it. The final vote was 26-14, one shy of enough.

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