Kansas progressives had hoped that Tuesday would be a historic victory – a Democrat in the governor’s mansion, an independent in the U.S. Senate and a more moderate Legislature – but instead, they saw a series of colossal defeats.
Not only did U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and Gov. Sam Brownback stave off their re-election challengers, Republicans swept all other statewide offices and even appear to have picked up five seats in the Kansas House.
Democrats had been expected – even by most Republicans – to gain seats in the House.
In 2015, Kansas will have an even more conservative Legislature. Republicans will hold 98 of the House’s 125 seats if the party’s leads in a few close races hold as provisional ballots are counted, to go along with the party’s supermajority of 32 of 40 seats in the state Senate.
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Mark Dugan, Brownback’s campaign manager, called the governor’s victory and the party’s pickup in the House proof of a mandate for Brownback’s conservative policies of smaller government and lower taxes.
“They were singularly focused on winning the governor’s race, the Democrat Party was. And a 4-point win is a major win in a race like this,” Dugan said.
He said Democrats had put the governor front and center in down-ticket races, too. When voters were choosing legislators, in some cases they were basing their decision on the governor’s tax cuts and other policies.
“They put Sam Brownback on the ballot for all of those legislators, and in every one of those districts, those five districts we picked up, it was Sam Brownback on the ballot. And the people of Kansas chose Sam Brownback,” he said.
Despite Dugan’s proclamations of a mandate, Brownback may not have been able to cross the finish line had Republican voters not rallied around Roberts’ re-election effort.
Roberts, elected to his fourth term in the Senate, faced a race that gained national attention after the Democratic candidate dropped out and polls showed Roberts trailing independent Greg Orman.
The senator bested his challenger by 10 percentage points, winning 85 percent of Republican votes, according to exit poll data. By comparison, Brownback won by 4 percentage points, with the support of 80 percent of Republican voters, while 19 percent of Republicans broke for Democrat Paul Davis.
On Wednesday, Democrats blamed Davis’ loss on the Senate race, which energized the Republican base and brought a flood of money from the national Republican Party and various independent groups to mobilize voters for Roberts. Brownback also benefited from $4 million in spending from the Republican Governors Association, which ran a series of attack ads against Davis.
“I think the first thing that caused the results in Kansas was the dark money. It’s just poisoning the political process,” said Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita.
The mood among Ward and other Democrats on Wednesday was akin to one you might find at a funeral for a person who had unexpectedly died.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, spoke candidly Wednesday. Democrat Chad Taylor’s decision to withdraw from the race was seen by many Republicans as a thinly-veiled effort by Democrats trying to oust Roberts through an independent candidate.
Hensley said that within the party, he advocated that Taylor should stay on the ballot because that would make the U.S. Senate race a nonfactor, with Orman and Taylor splitting the vote and allowing Roberts to cruise to victory while Democrats focused on the governor’s race.
“But there were Democrats that for some reason thought Orman was the guy, so they, both within our state and nationally, thought that Chad should get off the ballot,” Hensley said.
“I think more than anything else, the U.S. Senate race had a negative impact. I mean, Paul a week and a half ago said as much to me,” Hensley added. “He said this U.S. Senate race is not helping our chances. And I don’t think he’d mind me telling you.”
Patrick Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said that both Orman and Davis lost in large part because of voters’ negative attitudes toward President Obama, which helped spur a GOP wave nationally.
Exit poll data, collected by the National Election Pool, showed that 66 percent of the people who showed up to vote disapproved of the president. Both Roberts and Brownback painted their opponents as Obama-style liberals, and Roberts presented his victory as a way to rein in the administration.
Roberts resisted the notion that Brownback rode in on his coattails.
“As much as you would like for me to say that, I think each race was different,” Roberts said. “And I think in my race, we were trying to say exactly what we have said before, that my race was about more than Pat Roberts. It was about electing a Republican majority.”
Roberts’ campaign manager, Corry Bliss, also wouldn’t take credit for helping to bring Brownback across the finish line, but he did acknowledge that straight ticket voting helped both candidates and that Roberts’ race probably helped drive Republican turnout.
Other factors may also have worked in Brownback’s favor.
Libertarian Keen Umbehr helped steer some anti-incumbent voters away from Davis. If you take the total number of voters who supported Umbehr and add it to those who supported Davis, it’s 656 more than the number who voted for Brownback.
The state’s proof-of-citizenship requirement also meant that more than 21,000 potential voters could not vote, a fact Ward blamed for some of the close House races.
“It taints the election,” Ward said. “You look at Ed Trimmer, who loses by six votes. You look at Virgil Weigel, who loses by 50 votes. You look at Julie Menghini, who loses by 125 votes. You look at Pat Sloop, who loses by 48. ... That’s where you’re going to see the impact of the 21,000 people being denied their right to participate.”
But despite those other factors, the main person to blame for Paul Davis’ loss is Paul Davis, said Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.
Rackaway repeatedly warned that Davis, whose name recognition among voters was low at the outset of the race, had not done enough to define himself for voters, which allowed the GOP to do it for him.
Rackaway said Republicans portrayed Davis as a “tax-raising, Obama-loving, strip club enthusiast who favors letting criminals go loose on the street” in a series of attack ads and mailers.
“That’s why you have to produce other stuff that qualifies that in people’s minds,” Rackaway said. “What you can’t do is let the other campaign tell voters everything about you, because of course they’re going to skew things.”
Democrats defended Davis’ campaign as being centered on key issues, such as education and the economy, and disputed the notion that the candidate had failed to offer voters a complete vision for the state.
Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, a fan of international soccer, compared the Democrats’ strategy to the way Italy’s national team plays. They scored a goal early on with endorsements from moderate Republican officeholders and then tried to play defense for the rest of the match, while Republicans went on the attack.
In the end, Republicans scored more goals last night than even they were expecting.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, called the election historic. He also signaled what the agenda would be for the newly expanded Republican caucus and how it would handle a projected budget shortfall.
“I’m celebrating Tuesday’s historic election but also immediately looking toward our main focal point for the 2015 session, which is the state budget. We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem,” Merrick said in a statement. “I plan to work with our newly expanded caucus to ensure the state lives within its means while continuing to protect core services like education and public safety.”