Berger beats Bruce, McGinn keeps seat in ‘brutal’ night for conservatives

Updated at 1:35 a.m.: One of Gov. Sam Brownback’s closest allies in the Legislature lost his bid for re-election Tuesday night amid a wave of conservative losses.

Brownback isn’t on the ballot this year, but his policies are very much at stake in this election.

Moderates, who have seen their influence wane since Brownback took office in 2010, recaptured some of the power Tuesday by tapping into voters’ frustrations with the state’s budget woes.

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Ed Berger, the former president of Hutchinson Community College, beat Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, by 14 percentage points after running on a platform of fiscal responsibility. He highlighted his opposition to recent higher education cuts and the practice of taking money from the highway fund to plug budget holes.

“That was our message all the way through and I think that resonated with people,” Berger said in a phone call.

Bruce conceded the race shortly after 10 p.m., saying in a statement that the voters “have spoken and they wanted to go in a new direction.” Bruce had been one of the main leaders of the conservative faction that took control of the Senate in 2012.

Republicans squared off in 16 Senate primaries and moderates prevailed in 10 of those races.

Bruce Givens, a special educator from Butler County, ousted Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, one of the most conservative members of the Senate, who has spearheaded the effort to loosen gun restrictions in recent years. Rep. John Doll, a moderate Republican from Garden City, prevailed over Sen. Larry Powell, R-Garden City, in Finney County. Conservative incumbents also fell to moderates in Johnson County.

Moderate Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick appeared to have pulled out about a 230-vote victory over conservative challenger Renee Erickson. That could change when provisional ballots are counted next week.

“The race was a little closer than I had hoped, but it paid off a lot of walking and talking and knocking at the door steps, paid off,” said McGinn, who also survived a strong challenge in 2012. “I think Kansas voters want to get away from political tactics and want to get our state back to where we balance a budget, where we are able to run our essential core services, whether it’s school or building infrastructure for business, and they want us to get back on track and we’ve been going the wrong direction for the last four years.”

Statewide, seven House incumbents lost their seats, including Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, who has been one of the leading voices for spending cuts in the Legislature. Kelley lost to challenger Anita Judd-Jenkins.

‘Brutal. Brutal. Brutal’

Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, won his own primary, but watched several friends lose their House seats Tuesday.

“Brutal. Brutal. Brutal,” Hawkins said at a watch party in Wichita. “Absolutely brutal.”

Tim Graham, a Democratic staffer, sent a text message seconds after Bruce’s concession: “The earthquake you’re feeling isn’t fracking, it’s Brownback’s house of cards falling.”

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, who is leaving his seat in the Legislature to pursue a spot on the Sedgwick County Commission, remarked Tuesday night that he “saw the freight train coming.”

“I think a lot of people just weren’t listening to their constituents…I knew we were going to lose people,” O’Donnell said.

He blamed the losses of conservative candidates on a perception that lawmakers were unwilling to stand up to Brownback on fiscal issues and called it a “complete reversal of what happened four years ago.”

‘Especially tough blow’

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said ahead of the vote that “if moderates do gain some ground then I think that’s an especially tough blow on Brownback.”

A poll released this month by Fort Hays State University pegged the governor’s approval rating at 15 percent and many moderates sought to tie their opponents to the governor.

John Dombo, a Republican voter, said in comments submitted to The Eagle that “Brownback and his lemmings are taking our state into bankruptcy... but they are not willing to admit it and make the necessary changes.”

Brownback didn’t issue endorsements or join candidates on the campaign trail, but he quietly waded into races.

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His staff members went door to door in support of candidates ahead of the primaries in Wichita and Johnson County and his political action committee spent nearly $100,000 in support of conservative candidates.

“At stake this election is increased support in the legislature for polices that endanger the unborn, degrade 2nd amendment rights, expand the welfare state, and grow government regulation and taxation on businesses and citizens of Kansas,” said Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman, in an e-mail.

Kelly Arnold, the state Republican chairman, said the results of the primary show voters are in an anti-incumbent mood. He said Democrats have been using Brownback “as a punching bag” but said he thinks “it’s bigger than that.”

Money, patience spent

Large sums of money went into the races.

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce spent more than $300,000 in support of conservative candidates, while the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, spent more than $235,000 in support of moderates and Democrats, according to campaign finance filings.

McGinn found herself the target of a flurry of mailers and radio ads making questionable claims. Marjorie Warta, a volunteer on McGinn’s campaign, said this election has had “dirtier fliers, meaner, very negative and inaccurate mailers.”

Erickson’s campaign sent out mailers depicting McGinn as a donkey, the symbol of the Democratic Party.

Even Kansas politicos grew tired of being bombarded with political ads every time they opened their mailbox or surfed the Internet.

“I live in (Sen. Jeff) Melcher’s district,” said Clay Barker, who lives in Johnson County, in a phone interview last week. “Every time I turn on Facebook, it’s (John) Skubal and Melcher ads all over and I finally just clicked to get rid of all of them, you know hide them.”

Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, followed up with an e-mail: “I (expletive deleted) hate (expletive deleted) primary (expletive deleted) elections.”

Melcher was one of several conservative incumbents to lose their seats in Johnson County.

Sedgwick County races

Sedgwick County also boasted a number of competitive races after the retirement of several incumbents.

“In Wichita, there were a bunch of resignations. You know, (Rep. Mark) Hutton and (Rep. Mark) Kahrs not running again,” Barker said. “And open seats are the ones where you get some pretty stiff primaries because people are trying for it.”

The race to replace Kahrs, a conservative, in House District 87, for example, pitted two candidates with vastly different views.

Retired banker Roger Elliott voiced strong support for expanding Medicaid, increasing education funding and repealing a tax exemption that allows the owners of certain businesses to pay zero income tax, the governor’s signature policy.

Financial adviser Jeremy Alessi, on the other hand, opposed Medicaid expansion, said school districts need to do a better job managing the money they already have and blamed the state’s budget problems on overspending rather than the income tax cuts.

Elliott beat Alessi 57 percent to 43 percent.

There were exceptions to the trend, however.

First-time politician Susan Humphries, a lawyer from east Wichita, won a race to replace retiring Rep. Dennis Hedke in House District 99 over Randy Banwart.

Humphries said her conservative message resonated with voters in the east Wichita/Andover district.

“There’s a grassroots Republican conservative group that really wants to see conservatives in office and they rallied around,” Humphries said.

She attributed the losses of other conservative candidates to this “crazy election cycle right now.”

Greg Lakin, a physician, pulled out to an early lead over J.C. Moore in District 91 in west Wichita, but he was reluctant to celebrate until the results became official.

“There’s a lot of anxiety that goes with this. It’s more relief than it really is celebratory,” Lakin said. “It’s just a lot of work. I have some blisters on my feet from walking door to door to door.”

Lakin won with 64 percent of the vote.