Some of the key decisions of the 2016 state legislative campaign were made in the fall of 2015. Potential candidates could anticipate an upcoming election that would be a referendum on the Brownback administration, featuring taxes and a host of other policies, from Medicaid expansion to the delivery of social services to raids on highway funds.
Recruiting candidates is difficult, but overall an impressive array of moderate candidates – both Republicans and Democrats – emerged over the past year, from the Johnson County suburbs to medium-sized communities like Leavenworth and Pittsburg to Wichita to the expansive districts of western Kansas.
In 2014, Democrat Paul Davis’ attempt to hold Gov. Sam Brownback accountable was seriously compromised by the immense outside spending on behalf of incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., which nationalized the gubernatorial election. But this year national forces have played a lesser role in Kansans’ decisions, especially in the GOP legislative primaries, where many Brownback allies either did not run for re-election or lost, often by wide margins.
Republicans this year must run not only with the Brownback albatross but also with the uncertainty of Donald Trump’s wavering support, especially in Johnson County, where he trails by 10 points or so.
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In short, this Tuesday Kansans can profoundly reshape the legislative mix in Topeka over the next two years, and beyond.
Running parallel to the legislative races are the retention elections for Kansas Supreme Court justices. In 2014, two sitting justices came close to losing their seats, and their opponents anticipated that in 2016 they could unseat the four incumbents they opposed, largely based on death penalty and school finance rulings.
The retention and rejection forces have raised roughly equal amounts of money, but the retention supporters enjoy the advantage of supporting justices whom Brownback, the least popular chief executive in the country, has vigorously opposed. In addition, pro-public education sentiments favor the incumbents, who have consistently ruled that more state funding for public education is required.
For many, the 2016 election will be defined by the unlikely emergence of Donald Trump and his bizarre campaign, but for Kansans the real news is that an independent judiciary and a more moderate Legislature may well increase the chances of more responsible governance to address the state’s profound array of problems.
Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.