A state Senate race in Wichita has grown increasingly heated, with television attack ads and phone campaigns spreading questionable claims about both candidates – from raiding Medicare to having ties to communism.
Republican Sen. Mike Petersen faces a challenge from Democrat Keith Humphrey in District 28, which covers parts of southeast Wichita, Derby and McConnell Air Force Base.
Petersen beat Humphrey by 5 percentage points in 2012. Humphrey, a Navy veteran who moved to Kansas in 2006 to start a jet engine repair company, is optimistic about his chances this year, saying voters are frustrated with the direction of the state.
“When I go door to door, you know, I meet people who are angry,” Humphrey said. “They’re angry until they figure out I’m not Petersen. Then they’re OK. Then they’re like, ‘I’ll vote for you,’ and they shut the door.”
Petersen said he has also encountered voter frustration at the doorstep but that it has been aimed primarily at national politics and Gov. Sam Brownback.
“They’re very upset with the governor, but they’re not holding it against the legislators personally as much as I expected,” Petersen said.
Petersen said he expects a tough campaign during the final weeks before Election Day on Nov. 8.
“We’ll deal with what comes at us,” he said. “It’s just kind of the nature of this district. It’s always a close race. … It’s kind of always a contact sport. You’ve got to have thick skin.”
Petersen voted in favor of the sales tax increase last year as a way to plug the state’s budget hole, a vote Humphrey has criticized.
“They’re raising sales tax on folks, where it’s a big percentage of their annual salary,” said Humphrey, contending the sales tax increase disproportionately affects working-class families.
Humphrey’s television ads refer to Petersen as “Tax Hike Mike” based on that vote. Those ads also contain the inaccurate statement that Petersen voted “to raid your Medicare just to keep Brownback’s broken government afloat.”
The state Legislature has no power to cut Medicare, a program appropriated by the U.S. Congress to provide health coverage to seniors.
“Obviously, that’s a basic falsehood,” Petersen said. “If you knew anything about health care at all, you’d know Medicare’s federal. … He’s giving me too much credit for power there.”
Brownback did cut state funding for Medicaid, a program that provides health coverage to low-income people, in order to balance the state’s budget after the Legislature had adjourned its session. However, that cut did not affect Medicare funding.
Humphrey couldn’t explain the basis for the Medicare claim when asked about it on Monday, saying he did not personally write the commercial.
“I’m not sure. … That came up in my mind, too,” Humphrey said. “But the explanation I got seemed logical, so I’ll have to talk to the writer of that commercial on what they were getting at.”
His spokesman, Chris Pumpelly, said a few minutes later that the assertion was based on Petersen’s vote in favor of a bill to commit Kansas to a proposed interstate health care compact.
“Mike Petersen voted to hand control of our Medicare program to Sam Brownback and he can do what he wants with that program as he pleases,” Pumpelly said.
Under the proposed compact, Kansas would receive its federal health care dollars as a block grant. State officials would be able to decide how the money is allocated. The compact won’t become reality unless it is approved by both Congress and the president, and that hasn’t happened.
If the compact were to be approved in the future, that would not immediately result in a cut to Medicare. Brownback explicitly warned that he would not support any cuts to Medicare when he signed the compact legislation in 2014.
The attacks aren’t one-sided.
Humphrey has been the target of a “push poll,” a phone campaign that presents itself as a poll that actually tries to influence voters’ outlooks with slanted questions.
The Eagle obtained a recording of a push poll from Humphrey’s campaign. One question warns voters that Humphrey “supports job-killing tax increases on small businesses.”
Humphrey, who benefits from an income tax exemption for business owners that was ushered into law at Brownback’s urging, supports rolling back the exemption, which could generate more than $200 million in revenue for the state. The push poll leaves out that Petersen is also open to rolling back that exemption.
Petersen has avoided taking a hard stance on the proposed rollback, saying lawmakers need to take a comprehensive look at the state’s finances next session.
“We have to look at everything when we’re back there and see where we’re at,” Petersen said. “Just one or two of those little items that everybody’s talking about isn’t going to fix everything. We need a pretty serious look at everything.”
The phone calls tout Petersen’s support of a Senate Republican platform that promises a balanced budget. Petersen said he did not pay for any phone campaign against Humphrey and does not know who is behind it. He said he could not comment on it because he has not heard it.
Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said he is aware of the phone campaign but isn’t sure of the source of the calls. He said he thinks they probably were paid for by a 501 (c)(4) organization, which does not have to report spending on specific races.
“We’ll probably never find out who did it unless somebody ’fesses up,” Barker said, noting that push polls aren’t unusual.
Similar phone calls attacking Democratic candidates have been made in legislative races around the state.
Democrats have pointed at Senate President Susan Wagle, who oversees the political action committee for Senate Republicans. Wagle’s office said she has no involvement in the calls.
Democrats say an earlier version of the phone calls in District 28 tried to link Humphrey to communism in China based on his certification to make jet parts for the Chinese market.
Rep. Brandon Whipple, D-Wichita, whose House district overlaps with Senate District 28, said he received a call last week asking “would you vote for him (Humphrey) if you knew he had ties to communist China?”
Whipple said he found the false allegations of communist ties offensive because Humphrey served in the military during the Cold War “and received medals of heroism while he was fighting communists.”
Kathy Easley and Marjorie Griffith, two registered Democrats who live in the district, told The Eagle they received the same call.
China, the nation’s second-biggest trading partner, is a major market for the Wichita aviation industry. The city of Wichita operates an office in Beijing that promotes Wichita aviation exports in China.
Humphrey said Chinese certification has enabled him to expand his business and hire more workers.
“I don’t do any direct (business) with China,” Humphrey said. “What we do in the shop is we overhaul parts for companies that are selling parts to China, and we have to have Chinese certification on the parts to be able to sell them over there.
“We’re the only company in Kansas like ours that repairs jet engine parts that has that certification, so it’s a pretty big feather in the cap,” he added.