Kansas voters rebuked legislative allies of Gov. Sam Brownback and his reckless tax experiment in the August primary elections and again last Tuesday in the general election.
Forty legislative seats currently held or contested by backers of the experiment changed hands – 25 going to centrist Republicans, 15 to newly-elected Democrats.
Centrist Republicans gained 16 seats in the House, nine seats in the Senate, and will likely chose the next speaker and majority leader of the House, though that outcome depends on how a handful of newly elected Republicans line up in those leadership races. Senate President Wagle, R-Wichita, will likely hold onto her post, even though her caucus will be significantly rebalanced with centrists.
Democrats gained 12 seats in the House, one in the Senate. Thirty-two incumbent Democrats held onto their seats, but the party lost in one open contest it currently holds. Democrats improved their standing in both houses but remain a clear minority – 9 of 40 in the Senate, 40 of 125 in the House.
Brownback’s principal champion for his tax experiment, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, took a shellacking in these elections. Centrist Republicans deposed 18 candidates endorsed by the Chamber in the primary. Democrats defeated 12 more in the general election, including seven incumbents. More than half of the Chamber’s anointed candidates lost.
Brownback and his legislative allies were rebuked on court retention as well, a good indication that voters believe education funding has been shortchanged. An unprecedented amount of dark money flowed into the campaign to oust the justices, but all were retained by safe margins.
What does all of this mean? State finance and school funding now become front and center in the upcoming legislative session. Given the financial mess left by Brownback and his far-right coalition, the challenge will be monumental and call for negotiation among three parties of roughly equal strength – newly emboldened centrist Republicans, minority Democrats with slightly improved numbers, and the remaining Republicans whose votes created the mess.
However, the stranglehold of the radical right has been broken.
As voters have experienced the damage inflicted by ideological folly, Brownback has become toxic in state politics. Yet he remains in the governor’s chair for two more years and will likely cling to his discredited experiment at all costs.
Legislators may have to rally the votes necessary to override the governor in charting a new course on state finance and school funding.
H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.