Politics & Government

Five questions about Kansas legislative races

Regardless of the final results, based on the August primary the incoming Kansas Legislature is likely to be significantly different from the current one.
Regardless of the final results, based on the August primary the incoming Kansas Legislature is likely to be significantly different from the current one. File photo

Every seat in the Kansas Legislature will be up for election when voters head to the polls Tuesday.

Democrats and moderate Republicans have focused their campaigns on opposition to Gov. Sam Brownback’s policies, while conservatives have sought to push back on criticism and show their independence from the governor in the lead-up to Election Day. Regardless of the final results, based on the August primary the incoming Legislature is likely to be significantly different from the current one.

Here are five questions to consider as Tuesday approaches.

1. What will Donald Trump’s impact be down ballot?

It’s difficult to predict how much of a boost or burden Trump will be for Republican candidates in legislative races. Most polls have shown the Republican nominee leading in the presidential race in Kansas, but by a slimmer margin than is typical for Republicans in this deep red state. Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said last month that Trump was a drag on candidates in some parts of the state, specifically Johnson County.

But a poll released by Fort Hays State University on Friday showed Trump with a 24-point lead over Democrat Hillary Clinton, which would be an improvement on Mitt Romney’s 2012 totals. Does that mean Trump might end up being an asset for Kansas Republicans?

2. Will moderate Republicans and Democrats forge an alliance after the election?

Moderate Republicans made major gains in the August primary, ousting 14 more conservative incumbents and winning several primaries for open seats. Political observers have predicted that moderate Republicans will partner with Democrats to roll back portions of Brownback’s tax plan and pursue increases in school funding. If Democrats take additional seats from conservatives in the general election, that could further strengthen the clout of a moderate-Democratic alliance.

However, Democrats have sought to tie moderate Republicans to Brownback in some contentious races. Moderate Republicans have also been reluctant to commit to the idea of an alliance or say how they’ll vote in leadership races. This has called into question how closely moderates and Democrats would be able to work together after the election.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, a conservative, predicted on KCUR’s Statehouse Blend that no alliance would happen in the Senate.

3. Who will succeed House Speaker Ray Merrick as speaker?

Merrick, R-Stilwell, will retire from the Legislature at the end of the year. The race to replace him has already begun. House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, and Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, have said they want the job.

Jennings’ candidacy for speaker will depend largely on whether moderates gain enough seats in the general election to put him over the top.

Another potential speaker, Rep. Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, the House budget chairman, also has been quietly pursuing the job, according to lawmakers. Ryckman and Vickrey would compete for support from conservatives. Ryckman, like Merrick, hails from Johnson County, the most populous county in the state with the largest legislative delegation.

Wagle, on the other hand, looks poised to retain her presidency. The only person who had talked openly about challenging her, fellow conservative Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, lost his primary.

4. How will Brownback work with the new Legislature?

After the primary, it appears there will be an ideological shift toward the center during next year’s legislative session. The full extent of the shift remains to be seen, but the new Legislature could have a significant number of freshmen from both parties.

Brownback told reporters Tuesday that he was “absolutely” willing to work with an ideologically different Legislature. “Whatever the people decide to do, we’ll work with them,” he said. Brownback noted that when he came into office in 2011 the Senate was controlled by moderate Republicans.

“The first two years was different than the last four. The first two years you had a Senate in different control and we passed some very significant legislation,” Brownback said, pointing to reforms to the state pension system and his income tax cuts, which many moderates voted for despite initial opposition.

5. Will candidates be able to keep their promises on school funding?

Many candidates from both parties have focused their campaigns on tax fairness and school funding.

It’s likely the Legislature will have to tackle taxes next year. The state already faces a $75 million budget hole, and momentum appears to be building to roll back an income tax exemption for business owners.

However, increasing school funding to the level that many candidates are promising on the campaign trail probably would require other significant tax increases, something that could be politically challenging. The 2015 session stretched to a record 114 days as lawmakers struggled to pass a sales tax increase to fix a budget deficit.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3