Tuesday’s primary election wasn’t simply a win for conservative allies of Gov. Sam Brownback – it was a decisive victory in the biggest battle yet over the heart and soul of the Kansas Republican Party.
The governor and his allies purged moderates like the climactic scene of a Bourne thriller. While a few moderates survived, the story of the primary was the systematic elimination of nearly all of their kind in the Kansas Senate.
The stakes were high. The governor and his allies saw winning control of the Senate as a necessary prerequisite to pushing the remainder of Brownback’s aggressive agenda into law. Pension reform, school funding reform and further alterations to the tax code were blocked by the moderate-controlled Senate over the past two years.
Despite Team Brownback having a head start in the hunt, the team of Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, caught up quickly. Team Morris called in former Gov. Bill Graves to do fundraising, and their allies set up at least two political action committees to funnel money and support to moderates.
But the election was still a rout. Of the 21 races moderates invested in, they won five and lost 16. Sens. Tim Owens of Overland Park and Jean Schodorf of Wichita, two betes noires of the governor, lost to conservative challengers by more than 15 percentage points. The biggest trophy came from southwest Kansas, where Morris lost to Rep. Larry Powell, R-Garden City, by 334 votes.
Assuming Democrats do not increase their footprint in the Senate this November, conservatives will control Cedar Crest, the House and Senate. The ramifications for the future of Kansas politics are significant.
Though the moderates quickly created a campaign apparatus, the public did not respond to their message. Relying on contributions from unions to build the Team Morris campaign machine was risky and played into assertion that the moderates and Democrats coalesced into an unholy alliance that hijacked the Senate.
Attention will now turn to the general election, where Democrats will be aggressive in painting Team Brownback as extremists looking to tear down the mechanisms of Kansas government. But if Democrats cannot pick up at least six Senate seats, the governor and his allies will have a stranglehold on the chamber.
Assuming the Democrats perform according to historical trends, the path for Brownback’s preferred legislation is clear, as this midterm landslide has given him the closest thing to a mandate seen in 30 years. The governor’s allies are likely defer to him on any piece of legislation he chooses to promote.
Stand in the governor’s way? Go the way of Sen. Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer, who lost his southeast Kansas district seat to Brownback ally Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence.
There will be little dissent, and the minority will have control of no mechanisms to block legislation. One party, indeed one faction, will be able to promote its agenda unimpeded.
War has broken out within the Republican Party, and this may be the moderates’ Waterloo.