Democrats make gains in Kansas Legislature

Lynn Rogers talks about his campaign

Rogers opened up a big early lead in the 25th Senate district on Tuesday night.
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Rogers opened up a big early lead in the 25th Senate district on Tuesday night.

Republicans will retain majorities in the Kansas House and Senate, but Gov. Sam Brownback may face a less cooperative Legislature next session.

Democrats, who ran on a platform of tax fairness and a promise to increase school funding, picked up seats in both chambers after seeing their numbers dwindle in the past six years. That comes on top of victories by moderate Republicans in the August primaries, which saw the ouster of 14 conservative incumbents.

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“There’s very likely to be an anti-Brownback majority in the Legislature,” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist as Washburn University.

Democrat Lynn Rogers beat Republican Jim Price by 16 percentage points in Senate District 25 in central-west Wichita. Rogers, a longtime member of the Wichita school board, said tax fairness was most important to voters he met on the doorstep.

“As I was walking door to door, that was the message I heard over and over again. People didn’t like the fact that they were paying taxes and somebody else wasn’t paying taxes,” Rogers said.

“I would ask the question ‘Do you support the policies of Sam Brownback?’ and sometimes I would have to say, ‘I have to move on to the next house,’ because they would just go so crazy,” Rogers said. “And it didn’t matter whether it was a Republican household or a Democratic household, people were very adamant in both cases that they wanted to see someone stand up to Sam Brownback.”

Kelly Arnold, the state GOP chairman, said Republicans had expected Rogers to win after incumbent Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, gave up his seat to pursue a spot on the Sedgwick County Commission.

“The race we lost was one that we knew would be very difficult to retain” because of the makeup of the district, said Arnold.

Democrats entered the election with only eight seats in the 40-member Senate and 28 seats in the 125-member House. Preliminary results from the Kansas Secretary of State’s office show Democrats expanding to nine in the Senate and 40 in the House.

A tale of two elections

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, called Tuesday “the tale of two elections,” contrasting Republican Donald Trump’s victories with the Democratic gains in the Kansas Legislature.

“The Legislature’s going to be a much different place in 30 days,” Ward said.

In the House, Reps. Steve Anthimides, in southern Sedgwick County’s District 98, and Joseph Scapa, in east Wichita’s District 88, lost to Democratic challengers Steven Crum and Elizabeth Bishop.

Steve Crum was sitting on a 400-vote lead early against his republican opponent Steve Anthimides.

Elsewhere, Democrat Patsy Terrell ousted Republican incumbent Rep. Jan Pauls in Hutchinson and Democrat Tim Hodge narrowly defeated Republican incumbent Rep. Marc Rhoades in Newton. The party also captured seats in Johnson County and western Kansas.

“We’re going to pick up eight to 12 seats,” Ward said at a Democratic watch party at the Murdock Theatre in Wichita. “…This place would be going nuts if the presidential race was competitive because statewide we’re doing really well.

Arnold said the districts where Anthimides and Scapa lost are difficult districts. He attributed those defeats to the different makeup of voters in a presidential year, compared to midterm elections.

“We win those (seats) and then we lose them and then we win them back again,” he said. “We understand you can’t win them all.”

GOP still dominant

The GOP will still be the dominant party in the Legislature, Arnold noted.

He said overall, it was a good night for state Republicans.

“I think the Democrats tried to make it a referendum on Brownback,” he said. “I didn’t see that.”

He gave much of the credit to Senate President Susan Wagle, who crafted a legislative plan for Republicans to run on during the campaign.

“I think voters appreciated that,” he said.

Sen. Mike Petersen, R-Wichita, narrowly edged out Democrat Keith Humphrey in Senate District 28, which covers Wichita, Derby and McConnell Air Force Base, after a contentious race that saw both candidates subjected to questionable attacks.

Rep. Gene Suellentrop will become Sen. Gene Suellentrop, moving to the upper house to take the seat of retiring Sen. Les Donovan.

He said priority No. 1 will be to solve the imbalance between revenue and expenses since the Legislature passed deep tax cuts proposed by Brownback in 2012.

Even with the moderates’ victories and a smattering of new Democrats, “I think there will still be a conservative tilt to the Senate on taxes and budgets,” he said.

A bright spot for Republicans was House District 105, where former Rep. Brenda Landwehr won a return to Topeka, triumphing over Democrat Cammie Funston.

Landwehr was thinking ahead to the session that begins in January.

Once one of the most conservative members of the House, she said “I’ve mellowed a little” and she wants to help build a governing coalition with more moderate Republicans and Democrats.

“I’m hoping that once the dust settles we can put the campaign aside and Republicans and Democrats will say “Let’s go up to Topeka and govern. That’s what’s wrong up there. Nobody’s governing.”

“We have two ears and one mouth for a reason,” she said.

Both parties have spent significant sums this election.

The Kansas Democratic Party spent more than $850,000 on legislative races from late July into the start of November, while the Kansas Republican Party spent nearly $550,000. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce also spent about $350,000 in support of Republican candidates.

Elizabeth Bishop, who was holding an early lead over republican Joseph Scapa, said two mailers from Scapa that could be perceived as racist might have helped her election bid.

House races

Bishop beat Scapa by 12 percentage points in Wichita’s House District 88. She said she focused her campaign on “pocketbook issues,” such as tax fairness and expanding Medicaid.

“My opponent was simply out of touch with the district. I discovered that when I started knocking on doors,” Bishop said. “And I think he discovered that when he started knocking on doors.”

The Kansas Republican Party sent out mailers in the district showing an Islamic State fighter, asking voters whether they had met the new neighbors, and another set of mailers showing a black man’s hand covering a white woman’s face in an effort to link Bishop to the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision to vacate death sentences for Reginald and Jonathan Carr in 2014.

Bishop called the mailers racist and said she thought they backfired on Scapa.

“Southeast Wichita is a highly diverse community. It’s one of the things that we take some pride in. I expected them to come after me hard. They obviously wanted to keep Mr. Scapa. I expected them to attack me,” she said. “I did not expect them to attack my neighbors.”

Crum, a member of the Haysville City Council, won a rematch against Anthimides in House District 98 by six percentage points.

“I ran on the exact same things that I ran on ’14,” Crum said. “Tax code, education funding and expanding Medicaid. Those are my three top priorities. And the citizens understand that those are some of the most important things in the state right now.”

Crum said he worked harder this year than he had during the 2014 race, targeting the areas where he underperformed last time.

Tom Witt, a Democratic consultant, said the party has underperformed in Sedgwick County in recent years because it has failed to engage voters. Witt led a canvassing operation that knocked on 27,000 doors in the county in effort to persuade Democratic-leaning voters to come out to the polls. Based on the results Tuesday, that effort appeared successful.

“It’s about voter engagement,” Witt said. “Voters do not need to be reminded that it’s Election Day. You have to be living at the bottom of a 2-mile deep cave with the entire mountainside collapsed over the entrance not to know it’s Election Day…It’s not that people need to be reminded. It’s that they have to be given a reason.”

Brownback backlash

Statewide, many Republican candidates sought to distance themselves from the governor and his policies, in some cases touting their support for rolling back the governor’s signature policy, a tax exemption for business owners.

Kansas lost 6,300 private sector jobs between September 2015 and September 2016, according to the Kansas Department of Labor. The state also has faced budget gaps repeatedly in the past two years, including a $75 million budget hole for this fiscal year.

Beatty said he got a mailer from an incumbent Republican in Topeka boasting that he had “fought the Brownback agenda” and noted that in Johnson County, some GOP candidates had even promoted that they quietly supported Democrat Paul Davis in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

“We’ve got numerous races across the state with incumbent Republicans tripping over themselves to say how anti-Brownback they are,” Beatty said.

Arnold pushed back on that idea in an interview Monday.

“I don’t think they’re running against their governor. We’ve constantly got to be looking at our tax policy, you know, what is the best tax policy for Kansas,” Arnold said, referring to mailers the party paid for that touted GOP candidates’ support for rolling back the governor’s tax policy.

Senate Republicans released their own platform that included a plank about fixing the state’s budget problems.

“We took a different route than the Republican establishment,” Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, the top Republican in the Kansas Senate, said in an e-mail on Tuesday morning. “We acknowledged we have a major budget problem and are committed to fixing it.”

Tuesday evening, Wagle told Republicans at the Drury Plaza Hotel that she hasn’t seen voters this angry since 1990, when Democrat Joan Finney won the governorship and the House went Democratic.

She vowed Republicans will work hard to address voters’ anger when they return to the Statehouse in January.

“We’re going to address the voter anger,” she said. “We’re going to right the ship, we’re going to balance the budget, and we’re going to fix the broken system here in Kansas, and you’re going to be proud to be a Republican.” 

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas, dlefler@wichitaeagle.com

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3, blowry@wichitaeagle.com