Gov. Sam Brownback unleashed a barrage of legislative proposals this year, most of which seek to reshape Kansas state government into a smaller, more limited version of itself. Events over the past few weeks, though, have put his legislative agenda on a collision course with the remaining remnants of the moderate coalition in the Kansas Senate.
From the mid-1990s to 2010, the moderate coalition, composed of moderate Republicans and Democrats, often prevailed. It generally coalesced at the end of each legislative session to thwart conservative attempts to reduce K-12 education spending.
However, the 2010 elections killed the moderate coalition in the state’s lower chamber. Though House Republican moderates survived primary challenges by conservatives, the Republican tsunami swept away 16 of the 49 House Democrats.
Today the only remaining outpost for the moderate coalition is in the Kansas Senate. Last year this coalition formed one time to beat back a very austere House-inspired budget bill. But for the most part the conservative-led House controlled the policy agenda.
However, events have been conspiring to change the narrative of this legislative session.
First, despite the acquiescence of Senate moderates last year, conservative forces in the Republican Party and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce decided to reward them by recruiting conservative challengers for the 2012 Republican primaries.
Second, Sen. Tim Owens, an Overland Park moderate and chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, responded to this conservative challenge by drafting a redistricting plan for the Senate that would gerrymander challengers into the same districts. It was never intended to survive intact. Rather, the moderate Republicans were sending a political message: They were not going down without a fight.
Third, the conservatives and the governor’s staff did not catch the clue to back off. Undeterred, House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, and the governor’s chief of staff, David Kensinger, threatened to interfere in the Senate’s redistricting plans, breaking a number of political taboos.
The combination of these three events effectively reawakened the coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Senate by removing most incentives for moderate Republicans to work with the governor and his conservative allies.
Add this political miscalculation by the governor and his staff to the long laundry list that they have been amassing.
There was simply no need to kick this sleeping dog. The lesson from the 2010 elections is that the road for destroying the moderate coalition is most easily traveled through conservatives knocking off Democratic incumbents and winning open seats in the general elections, not in challenging moderate Republicans in primaries.
However, all is not lost for the governor. The moderates always have been prone toward political compromises and most likely will compromise again. But if the governor can’t compromise and make peace with Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, he will have to wait until next year for another attempt to turn Kansas into a low-tax, business-friendly, socially conservative haven.
Can you hear that dog howling? It now seems to be coming from Cedar Crest.