Prairie Politics

After tax increase vote, Michael O’Donnell may be vulnerable in 2016

Wichita Sen. Michael O'Donnell voted for the tax bill passed by the Senate despite not supporting it. (June 8, 2015)
Wichita Sen. Michael O'Donnell voted for the tax bill passed by the Senate despite not supporting it. (June 8, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

Sen. Michael O’Donnell has a target on his back in 2016, and he knows it.

O’Donnell, a Republican, represents a Senate district in west-central Wichita that overlaps with the districts of three Democratic state representatives and that went in favor of Democrat Paul Davis in the 2014 governor’s race by double digits.

He also voted last week in favor of HB 2109, which increases the state’s sales and cigarette taxes, among other things.

“I fully anticipate the Democrats trying to exploit any vote I take, yes or no,” O’Donnell said. “That’s just politics.”

He defends this vote because it was paired with a cut to the sales tax on food a year later.

“I did have reservations about it but because the sales tax (cut) for food was in there, I was able to support that bill….And then I heard from people in my district that were very unhappy with it,” he said. “So I regretted it and I told them if I have an opportunity again, I would vote against it.”

O’Donnell lobbied House members to vote against the bill, a move that rankled some of his Senate colleagues, including tax chairman Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, who called O’Donnell’s behavior inappropriate.

He voted against a subsequent tax bill, SB 270, that dropped the future cut to the sales tax on food. “I know that I disappointed members of the Republican Party, but I think I did the right thing for my district,” O’Donnell said. “And I’ve received nothing but positive comments since that vote on Friday.”

The two bills together form a tax package that Gov. Sam Brownback signed Tuesday.

Kansas Democrats say that frustration with the sales tax hike and with dysfunction in Topeka after a record 113-day session gives them an chance to pick up seats in the Legislature. They see O’Donnell’s seat as particularly winnable in the next election if they can field the right candidate.

“They own this dysfunction…I think this gives us an opportunity to maybe make a few changes,” said Tim Graham, a Democratic staffer.

Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist from Fort Hays State University, said O’Donnell “certainly stands out” as someone who will be vulnerable in 2016. “Anyone who is in a swingy district like that is certainly ripe for a challenge,” he said.

“There’s plenty of outrage over this session. And you have a set-up for opponents of these conservatives that is really, really perfect,” Rackaway said. “You’ve got a perfect opportunity to say these folks called themselves conservatives and they raised your taxes. Don’t mention sales. Just say they raised your taxes.”

However, Rackaway said, Democrats need to find candidates early to build support behind.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, confirmed that he has received phone calls asking him to challenge O’Donnell but said that he thinks it’s too early to make a decision. Carmichael said he’s even had some Republicans ask him to go after O’Donnell.

Speaking more generally, Carmichael said that Democrats, who hold less than one-fourth of the seats in Legislature, stand to gain in 2016.

“The Republican governor with supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature has been unable to govern the state and I think voters are well aware of that,” he said.

“It’s obvious that folks were engaged this year,” Carmichael said. “The level of email that I received from my constituents exploded exponentially as the session drew on.”

Another name being mentioned in Democratic circles as a possible opponent for O’Donnell is Chris Pumpelly, who served as Davis’ communications director during the 2014 campaign and is a Wichita native. Pumpelly would not comment for this article.

O’Donnell took his seat in 2012 – after serving on the Wichita City Council – by ousting longtime moderate Republican incumbent Sen. Jean Schodorf in the primary. Schodorf has since become a Democrat and now serves as the state party’s secretary.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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