Elections

Brownback’s support in Legislature weakens after moderates’ big gains

Gov. Sam Brownback during a news conference in Topeka earlier this year.
Gov. Sam Brownback during a news conference in Topeka earlier this year. File photo

Gov. Sam Brownback saw his support in the Legislature weakened Tuesday when moderates prevailed in a significant number of Republican primary races.

The general election is still three months away, but it’s already clear Brownback will be working with a less cooperative Legislature for the final two years of his governorship.

“It looks likes the math is pretty clear we’re going to have a ruling moderate-Democratic coalition again,” said Michael Smith, a professor of political science at Emporia State University.

It looks likes the math is pretty clear we’re going to have a ruling moderate-Democratic coalition again.

Michael Smith, professor of political science at Emporia State University

Moderate Republicans succeeded in turning the primaries into a statewide referendum on the governor, Smith said.

“After four years of the failed experiment, people ran out of patience,” said Roger Elliott, a moderate who won the Republican primary for the open House seat in east Wichita’s District 87. He was referring to the income tax cuts Brownback ushered into law in 2012, which economists say have contributed to the state’s budget woes.

“Everyone has a stake in this game, and people just said, ‘Enough’s enough,’ ” said Elliott, a retired banker, who supports expanding Medicaid and rolling back portions of the income tax cuts. He will face Democrat Tonya Howard in November.

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce funded a postcard campaign against Elliott, but he prevailed over conservative Jeremy Alessi by 15 percentage points. “I sent a postcard that said let’s set aside all the falsehoods and focus on the issues,” Elliott said.

Mark Peterson, a professor of political science at Washburn University, said a lot of candidates backed by the chamber “went down in flames.” The chamber seeks to preserve the income tax cuts.

Brownback’s office said the losses were the result of more general sentiment against incumbents.

Kansas is not immune from the widespread anti-incumbency sentiment we have seen across the nation this election season.

Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman

“Kansas is not immune from the widespread anti-incumbency sentiment we have seen across the nation this election season,” said Eileen Hawley, the governor’s spokeswoman. “Governor Brownback looks forward to working with strong Republican majorities in the Legislature to make Kansas the best place in America to raise a family and grow a business.”

Grassroots groups

Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, pegged moderates’ net gain at 11 seats in the House and eight in the Senate in a Twitter post. Some of those seats will be contested by Democrats in November, but either way, the incoming lawmakers are unlikely to support much of Brownback’s agenda.

Smith credited grassroots groups, such as Women For Kansas, for turning out voters to support moderate candidates.

“I’d like to think we had a hand in it, yes, but there are plenty of groups trying to change the composition (of the Legislature),” said Lynn Stephan, the group’s “founding mother.”

Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway, who mentored some of the victorious challengers, said that on the Saturday before the primary 70 volunteers showed up to walk door-to-door for moderate candidates in Johnson County’s Senate District 11, where John Skubal beat conservative incumbent Sen. Jeff Melcher, R-Leawood, by 12 percentage points.

“The uglier the postcards became … the more interested in ousting them (conservative incumbents) the people of that community became,” Rooker said.

Peterson said the media’s influence shouldn’t be overlooked.

“The press has been absolute hell on the budget crisis in Kansas … it’s been a constant drumbeat,” Peterson said, adding Kansans probably were tired of seeing the state used as a negative example in national media and as a punchline on late night television. “Kansas doesn’t really like to be notorious,” he said.

Rooker said the state was no longer able to cover its financial problems with “accounting tricks” and that she was “optimistic we can have that debate we’ve been denied” about the state’s finances when the Legislature reconvenes next year.

Moderates may seek leadership positions, but they’re unlikely to have a veto-proof majority even if they forge an alliance with Democrats, Rooker said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, released a statement calling for unity in the Republican Party, but also distancing herself from Brownback and acknowledging the palpable frustration of voters.

Too many Kansans still feel that the sun is not rising for them and their families, despite what some leaders tell them.

Senate President Susan Wagle, referring to the governor’s re-election slogan

“Too many Kansans still feel that the sun is not rising for them and their families, despite what some leaders tell them,” said Wagle in an apparent reference to Brownback’s re-election slogan. “I hear the anger and frustration that those Kansans are expressing.

She added she looks forward “to working with Republican nominees to offer Kansans a vision for the state that includes a return to fiscally-responsible balanced budgeting … a tax code that is fairer to all Kansans while keeping taxes low, and a focus on the state reforms needed to compete for new jobs and opportunities.”

Senate leadership

Wagle had no primary, but another Senate leader was ousted from office Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, one of Brownback’s closest allies, lost to moderate Ed Berger by 14 percentage points in Reno County.

Smith said moderates did a good job of recruiting candidates with strong name recognition, such as Berger, who had been president of Hutchinson Community College for more than two decades.

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.”

In a phone conversation Wednesday, Graham said Democrats were confident about the prospect of picking up seats during the general election in November.

“… There’s still a lot of voters who didn’t get to cast their anti-Brownback vote last night and we’re going to give those voters a choice in November,” he said.

Peterson cautioned against using the primary results as a predictor of the general election.

“I don’t think conservative values in Kansas died on Tuesday,” he said.

Rough night

Even conservatives who prevailed in their primaries said it was a rough night.

“The conservative faction will not be as strong,” said Rep. Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, who won the GOP primary to replace Sen. Les Donovan in Senate District 27 in west Wichita. “There will be a shift … but still I think we’ve got an opportunity to hold taxes low.”

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

Brutal. Brutal. Brutal. Absolutely brutal.

Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, about conservative losses Tuesday night

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

Some of those races were blowouts. The results in others were close and could be reversed when provisional ballots are counted next week.

Rep. Will Carpenter of El Dorado lost to retired school teacher Mary Martha Good by 37 votes in House District 75 in Butler County.

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.

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita

“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 conservative losses 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” when conservatives ousted nine moderate incumbents and took control of the Senate.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

Moderate victories

Here are some of the moderate wins:

House

Ousted incumbents

District 8

Patty Markley 58%

Craig McPherson (i) 42%

District 17

Tom Cox 62%

Brett Hildabrand (i) 39%

District 20

Rob Bruchman (i) 46%

Jan Kessinger 54%

District 28

Joy Koesten 54%

Jerry Lunn (i) 46%

District 39

Shelee Brim 43%

Owen Donohoe 23%

Charles Macheers (i) 34%

District 42

Jim Karleskint 52%

Connie O’Brien (i) 48%

District 75

Will Carpenter (i) 50%

Mary Martha Good 51%

District 80

Anita Judd-Jenkins 53%

Kasha Kelley (i) 47%

Open seats

District 21

Dorothy Hughes 61%

Neil Patrick Melton 39%

District 27

Timothy Harmon 47%

Sean Tarwater 54%

District 52

Brenda Dietrich 62%

Mark Leenerts 38%

District 87

Jeremy Alessi 43%

Roger Elliott 58%

Senate

District 11

Jeff Melcher (i) 44%

John Skubal 56%

District 14

Bruce Givens 52%

Forrest Knox (i) 48%

District 21

Greg Smith (i) 42%

Dinah Sykes 58%

District 24

Tom Arpke (i) 42%

Randall Hardy 47%

John Price 12%

District 34

Edward Berger 57%

Terry Bruce (i) 43%

District 39

John Doll 57%

Larry Powell (i) 43%

Open seats

District 15

Dan Goddard 51%

Virgil Peck 49%

District 33

Larry Salmans 48%

Mary Jo Taylor 52%

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