Races to watch in heavy election year

03/01/2014 9:21 AM

03/02/2014 7:59 AM

Check the calendar and you’ll see it’s an even-numbered year. That means elections, and lots of them.

In the primary Aug. 5 and general election Nov. 4, Kansans will choose a U.S. senator, governor and lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer and insurance commissioner. Two Kansas Supreme Court justices and eight Court of Appeals judges will be up for a yes-or-no vote in retention elections.

Voters in districts across the state also will choose members of the U.S. and state houses of representatives, the state Board of Education and district judges.

On the local level, voters in Sedgwick County will select a trio of county commissioners, Republican and Democratic precinct committee men and women and a multitude of township clerks and improvement district directors.

It’s a lot to keep track of, but like most elections, this one will boil down to a relative few key races that will have a big influence on the direction of the state and the county for years to come.

It is still early in the election cycle, with lots of time for things to change, of course. But here are some races to watch, with comments from Wichita State University professors Ken Ciboski, an active Republican, and Mel Kahn, an active Democrat.

Governor

Of all the races up and down the ballot, this is the one expected to most set the tone. Incumbent Republican Sam Brownback easily won four years ago and consolidated conservative control of the Legislature with a 2012 campaign that wiped out the once-strong moderate Republican influence at the Statehouse.

But analysts with Roll Call last month moved the race from “safe Republican” to “Republican-favored.”

Brownback’s Democratic opponent, House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence, led in the only independent poll conducted so far and nearly matched the governor’s fundraising for past year – if you set aside a $500,000 loan to Brownback’s campaign from his running mate, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.

Ciboski said the turning point in the race will come when Davis and his running mate, Wichita investment adviser Jill Docking, are forced to address Brownback’s overhaul of the state tax structure.

He said Kansas is “tax-phobic” and it could hurt Davis if he calls for restoring some of the cuts Brownback made.

The biggest beneficiaries are business owners who pay zero state income tax since Brownback’s plan took effect. “These people, they vote,” Ciboski said.

However, he also said Davis could get traction if he turns the argument to tax fairness, since Brownback’s tax plan favors business owners over wage-earning employees.

Expect a long argument and lots of conflicting data as Republicans claim the tax plan is succeeding in creating jobs and prosperity, while Democrats argue it’s a gift to the rich that’s draining state services and slowing Kansas’ economic recovery compared with other states.

An unanswered question is whether moderate Republicans – pilloried in 2012 as “Republicans in Name Only,”or “RINOs,” by conservatives – will stick with a party that has taken a dramatic turn to the right.

Davis has sought to exploit the Republican rift with near-daily missives from former Republican officeholders who have signed on to help with his campaign.

“Most often people want to vote their party, but there are going to be a number of Republican defections,” Kahn said. “I don’t know how many.”

Davis also has hammered at Brownback over cuts in school operating funds, positioning himself as “a leader standing up for public education,” Kahn said.

But he also said Brownback’s proposal to expand all-day kindergarten statewide has taken some of Davis’ momentum on the issue.

Secretary of state

Responsible mainly for registering businesses and overseeing elections, this office had long been seen as a sleepy backwater of state government.

That has changed dramatically since Kris Kobach took office four years ago. Kobach is known nationally for writing and defending laws targeting undocumented immigrants around the country.

As Kansas’ chief election officer, he shepherded through the Legislature a law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls and to provide birth certificates or passports to prove their citizenship when they register to vote.

That law has resulted in a backlog of almost 15,000 voters who have filled out registration forms, but whose voting privileges are suspended for lack of citizenship-proving documents.

Following an adverse Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s proof of citizenship law, Kobach recently was in federal court fighting for Kansas’ law and Arizona’s similar statute.

Kobach’s main opposition in the race is former Sen. Jean Schodorf of Wichita, a lifelong moderate Republican who switched parties after being pushed out of office in the 2012 Republican primary. She is running as a Democrat for the first time.

On the campaign trail, Schodorf has been pounding Kobach’s proof-of-citizenship requirements as “voter supression.”

As a senator, she voted for the bill but now says Kobach misled the Legislature, promising that it would be implemented seamlessly in conjunction with increased identity proof for drivers’ licenses.

She says the big backlog of suspended voters proves the law is broken and needs to be changed or repealed. Like Davis, she’s getting support from moderate Republicans who feel their party has strayed too far right, including former Senate President Steve Morris of Hugoton who was deposed from office in the 2012 purge of moderates.

Both Ciboski and Kahn said they think Schodorf will find it harder to win as a Democrat than a Republican.

“I think the state is too conservative Republican overall for Jean,” Ciboski said.

Kahn said that although Schodorf is well-known in southeast and south-central Kansas, the key question is whether she’ll be able to raise enough money to effectively challenge Kobach’s much higher name recognition in the rest of the state.

“Schodorf would have a difficult time if the election were held today,” Kahn said. “People just don’t vote for anyone they don’t know of.”

U.S. Senate

The race here could be decided in the Republican primary, where Pat Roberts, the incumbent senator since 1997, is facing an insurgent challenge from Milton Wolf, a Leawood radiologist and activist in the conservative tea party movement.

The race has recently heated up with the campaigns trading charges and counter charges.

Wolf, a distant cousin of President Obama and a staunch conservative, maintains the senator is out of touch with Kansas because of his long tenure in Washington.

Roberts counters that his frequent town-hall meetings in Kansas keep him in close touch with his home state.

Neither political science professor thinks Wolf can pull off the upset.

Both said Roberts is an outstanding campaigner and remains well-liked across the state.

“I don’t think Pat Roberts can take it for granted,” Ciboski said. But, he added, “If I had to bet money on it, I’d bet Roberts is going to come through.”

Kahn said Roberts’ voting record is one of the most conservative in Congress, offering him some protection from Wolf’s attacks from farther right.

“I don’t think by any stretch he (Roberts) can be considered a RINO,” Kahn said. “Maybe some people are going to be bothered by the residency issue, but I don’t see it” flipping the race to Wolf.

Sedgwick County Commission

Two races here are shaping up to be competitive fights.

In District 5, incumbent Jim Skelton faces a Republican primary challenge from state Rep. Jim Howell of Derby.

Howell is leading the charge in Topeka to relax the few remaining limits on gun-carrying in Kansas, pushing a bill to overturn local ordinances and allow Kansans to keep a loaded weapon in their car without a permit.

Skelton has won friends in his district as a commissioner and before that as a Wichita City Council member by bringing the district new projects – including a long-awaited fire station, Ciboski said.

Kahn said he thinks it will be a close race.

The other marquee race for commission is in the north-county District 4, matching a Republican incumbent against a Democrat who has been both a commissioner and a state legislator.

Incumbent Richard Ranzau is known for voting against local spending and opposing the county accepting federal grants for local services. He’s also known for making speeches during the commission’s televised meetings decrying issues such as the national debt, the Affordable Care Act and Agenda 21, a United Nations-sponsored set of guidelines for sustainable community development.

In his favor, according to Ciboski: “Even if you don’t like his ideas, he’s standing up and appears to be a man of principle.”

The challenger, former commissioner and state Rep. Melody McCray-Miller, says she wants to return “balanced representation” to the district, an amalgam of predominantly African-American Wichita neighborhoods and predominantly white suburban cities.

A barbecue-beans entrepreneur, Miller takes an activist view toward government’s role in neighborhood and business development and public health and safety.

Ciboski said he thinks McCray-Miller has a lot of residual popularity from her eight years in the Statehouse and three as a commissioner. “I think Melody’s going to make that a very interesting race,” he said.

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