TOPEKA — Primary election challenges that could change the political ideology of the Kansas Senate are shaping up for moderate Republicans, months before the June 2012 filing deadline and new political boundaries are drawn.
With all 40 Senate seats on the ballot, some moderate Republicans are gearing up for challenges from more-conservative GOP candidates.
Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, is one of the chamber's moderate voices who have a primary challenge. He'll face state Rep. Larry Powell, a conservative Republican from Garden City. Morris said he's not sure why his party continues to have such divisions.
"It really doesn't surprise me," said Morris, who is finishing his second four-year term as Senate president. "All the moderate Republicans have been targeted for quite a while. We anticipated that, but I'm a little surprised that it started this quickly."
Other Republicans facing primaries include Tim Owens of Overland Park, Vicki Schmidt of Topeka, Senate Vice President John Vratil of Leawood and Ralph Ostmeyer of Grinnell.
Morris, who was first elected to the Senate in 1993, said the chamber has been the last bastion of moderates in the Statehouse with the swing in 2010 to a more conservative House and Gov. Sam Brownback's election. Frequently during the 2011 session, legislation that sailed through the House, such as tax cuts and social policy, was stalled by senators who weren't ready to make the changes without significant review.
Republicans have a 32-8 ratio over Democrats in the Senate and a 92-33 advantage in the House. All 125 members of the House also are up for re-election. No statewide offices are on the ballot.
As Senate president, Morris often found himself at odds with the goals of House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, and the majority of conservatives.
In 2010, support from Morris helped Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson win legislative approval of a sales tax increase to prevent spending cuts. Powell opposed the increase.
"I believe it's important to do good public policy. You may have to take chances that make your re-election more difficult at times," Morris said. "I expect it to be a very vigorous campaign and intense campaign."
The filings are particularly interesting because so many have come before legislators have finished redrawing House, Senate and congressional districts to reflect the 2010 Census. Many of the districts where challenges have been filed are likely to change significantly before the new boundaries are adopted next spring and the June filing deadline.
Kansas GOP executive director Clay Barker said the party isn't working to recruit candidates to challenge Republican moderates. This year, he said, appears to be shaping up as an election where candidates and voters want to make wholesale changes, similar to 1994 and 2010.
The state party will support the winners in the Senate primaries "100 percent," said Barker, who acknowledged that the campaign could leave the winner damaged politically and short on cash heading to the general election.
"Sometimes a primary can become so intense that it can become personal between the supporters of the two candidates," he said.
Democrats say the primary battles are the results of conservatives and Brownback trying to gain total control over the Legislature.
"Apparently, for the crime of showing even the slightest inclination of working in a bipartisan fashion, they will suffer primary challenges and an openly hostile Republican primary electorate," said Kansas Democratic Party executive director Kenny Johnston.