TOPEKA — Sen. Michael O’Donnell has a target on his back in 2016, and he knows it.
O’Donnell, a Republican, represents a Senate district in west-central Wichita that overlaps with the districts of three Democratic state representatives and that favored Democrat Paul Davis in the 2014 governor’s race by double digits.
He also is among the lawmakers who voted earlier this month to increase the state’s sales and cigarette taxes.
“I fully anticipate the Democrats trying to exploit any vote I take, yes or no,” he said. “That’s just politics.”
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Kansas Democrats who suffered a series of setbacks in the past three election cycles see 2016 as a opportunity to regain seats in the Legislature.
Lawmakers’ struggle to balance the budget in a record 113-day session drew national attention. In the end, conservative Republicans – some of whom had signed pledges not to raise taxes – voted to raise taxes. Democrats stayed out of the fray.
“They own this dysfunction … I think this gives us an opportunity to maybe make a few changes,” said Tim Graham, a Democratic staffer.
“The Democrats get to step away from this and say, ‘whatever bad result comes from this stuff, remember, they did it,’” said Mark Peterson, the political science chair at Washburn University.
O’Donnell split his vote on the two tax bills passed by the Legislature. He voted yes on HB 2109 because, he said, it also cut the sales tax on food in 2016.
“I did have reservations about it but because the sales tax (cut) for food was in there, I was able to support that bill. … And then I heard from people in my district that were very unhappy with it,” he said. “So I regretted it and I told them if I have an opportunity again, I would vote against it.”
O’Donnell lobbied House members to vote against the bill, a move that rankled some Senate colleagues.
He voted against a subsequent tax bill, SB 270, that dropped the future cut to the sales tax on food. “I know that I disappointed members of the Republican Party, but I think I did the right thing for my district,” he said. “And I’ve received nothing but positive comments since that vote.”
The two bills together form a tax package that Gov. Sam Brownback signed last week.
Plenty of outrage
There’s plenty of outrage over the session, said Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist from Fort Hays State University. “You’ve got a perfect opportunity to say these folks called themselves conservatives and they raised your taxes. Don’t mention sales. Just say they raised your taxes.”
Peterson said frustration with the Legislature and the tax plan could benefit not only Democrats and moderate Republicans, but also candidates who could bill themselves as more conservative than the conservative incumbents who voted for the tax increase.
Republican leaders contend that raising the sales tax from 6.15 percent to 6.5 percent is not a tax increase because it comes on the heels of income tax cuts enacted three years ago.
“I think you have to look at the total package … when you look at that, it is a tax cut,” Brownback said before signing the tax bills Tuesday.
Republicans made a similar argument when lawmakers reduced school funding in the middle of this past school year. They said that since the cut came after an increase in the previous session, it was a “reduction of an increase.”
Democrats have a different message: GOP lawmakers cut school funding and raised taxes.
Republican state party officials point out that plenty of other factors will affect 2016 state elections – most significantly the U.S. presidential election – but they’re aware they may have to play defense on some issues.
“My hunch is that the election is far enough away that it’ll fade away in voters’ minds,” said Clay Barker, the Kansas Republican Party’s executive director. “There’s another session in between where if they pass – I don’t know – a lower food sales tax rate … or some other provisions, they can point to those.”
But he acknowledged that the party shouldn’t expect to make the types of gains it made in 2010-2014. “The pendulum’s got to swing. I accept that,” he said.
O’Donnell said he is worried that there won’t be the political will to cut the sales tax rate on food next year unless state revenue outperforms expectations. He said lawmakers should have done it this year.
For Democrats to regain seats, they will need to find candidates early to build support behind, Rackaway said.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said that people in both parties have asked him to challenge O’Donnell but that he thinks it’s too early to make a decision.
Speaking more generally, he said Democrats, who hold less than one-fourth of the seats in the Legislature, stand to gain next year.
“The Republican governor with supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature has been unable to govern the state and I think voters are well aware of that,” he said.
“It’s obvious that folks were engaged this year,” Carmichael said. “The level of email that I received from my constituents exploded exponentially as the session drew on.”
Kelly Arnold, the state GOP chair, said Republican lawmakers “demonstrated that they can govern” and that they would make that point to voters in 2016.
“Being a legislator is not easy work. If it was, anybody could do it. … Specifically with taxes and budget, they worked together and came up with what is a good compromise bill for the state of Kansas,” Arnold said.
More people are paying attention to state politics than normal. The challenge for Democrats will be to keep up that level of engagement, Rackaway said.
However, Peterson expects that the memory of the session – which ended with some lawmakers in tears – will fade in many voters’ minds.
“I think that for most people – in most places around the state – they picked up the morning paper and said, jeez, they’re still at it. … How’s my stock doing?” Peterson said. “The average Kansan I think probably was vaguely aware there was a sideshow going on in Topeka, but they don’t care. That four-tenths of a cent increase (to sales tax), if that’s all the effect, they’re not going to care.”