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In Kansas redistricting, new boundaries quickly bring new faces

Legislature will take on a different look after candidates sign up for races in dramatically altered districts.

Updated: 2012-06-13T06:02:51Z

By DAVE HELLING

The Kansas City Star

— Jim Yonally had no intention of running for the Kansas House until about 10:30 a.m. Monday.

The 75-year-old lobbyist and former state lawmaker had traveled to the secretary of state’s office to kibitz with scores of candidates signing up for races in dramatically new state legislative districts recently imposed by a federal court.

But it looked as if no Republican had signed up in Yonally’s House district, the 29th, in Johnson County. So with the clock ticking to a noon deadline, he threw his hat into the ring.

“Normally I’m not impulsive like that,” he admitted. “But I think this is an extremely important election.”

As it turns out, Yonally needn’t have worried. He didn’t know it at the time, but Republican James Todd had filed for the seat — after moving across the street Saturday into an apartment inside the boundaries of the new 29th district.

It was that kind of three-day, wacky weekend in Kansas politics.

Late-night apartment rentals. Pre-dawn sessions with bad coffee and Google Maps. Days pouring over smudged charts and spreadsheets, all aimed at recruiting dozens of Republicans and Democrats to run for the state’s upended 125 House and 40 Senate seats.

And as Secretary of State Kris Kobach gaveled the sign-up period to a close Monday, he and other Kansas politicians said all the work had been worthwhile: No matter what happens in the voting booth this summer and fall, they said, redrawn districts will mean scores of new candidates and a decidedly different look for the Legislature.

“The court...opened up a large number of opportunities,” Kobach said. “That in turn has allowed the infusion of new blood into the Kansas political system, a lot of fresh faces. I think that’s a good thing.”

Not all of the faces, however, are fresh.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder lost his only potential Democratic opponent, who withdrew before Monday’s deadline, leaving the 3rd Congressional District Republican freshman without major party opposition this fall.

U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp, another Republican, also has no Democratic opposition in the 1st Congressional district. But three Democrats signed up to compete for a chance to face Republican U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins in the 2nd Congressional District.

A federal court’s decision to put Lawrence, considered Democratic-leaning, into the 2nd District may have encouraged those candidates to file, officials said.

One early fear — that a state legislative district might have no candidates — proved unfounded. More than 250 House candidates filed Monday, Kobach said, and 100 signed up for Senate seats, roughly the same number as in previous elections.

Officials in both major parties said they found quality candidates for almost every district.

“We spent the whole weekend recruiting,” said Kansas Republican Party executive director Clay Barker. “We actually got too many candidates in some districts, and we had to back off a bit.”

“I thought it was wonderful,” said Kansas Democratic Party chairwoman Joan Wagnon. “For incumbents that have had a lock on things forever ... this just leveled the playing field.”

Among Democratic recruits: first-time candidate Nancy Lusk, who signed up to run for Johnson County’s 22nd House district. She’s expected to face GOP candidate Marla Brems in November, since both women are unopposed in the August primary.

“I had not considered it before Friday,” Lusk said, but agreed to run after Democrats approached her following the release of the new election maps last week.

Stephen Foster, a first-time candidate in Johnson County’s 25th district, had a similar experience. He’ll face Bill Griffith and Melissa Rooker in the August GOP primary.

“I had been on the sidelines (in previous campaigns),” Foster said. “With redistricting, I saw an opportunity.”

Former state lawmaker Stephanie Sharp, now a political consultant, said she spent the weekend counseling political neophytes.

“They’ve never walked doors. They’ve never had a logo with their name on a yard sign,” Sharp said. “They’re really needing a lot of the basics.”

The weekend shake-up also means changes at the top of the local legislative delegation.

State Sen. Terrie Huntington, considered a moderate Johnson County Republican, joined moderate colleague Sen. John Vratil in retiring from the Legislature. Vratil earlier said redistricting didn’t play a role in his decision.

In a statement, Huntington cited “personal and family health issues” for her decision. Instead, Kay Wolf will face David Harvey in Huntington’s 7th Senate district.

A third moderate Republican senator from Johnson County, Tim Owens, did file for re-election. He’ll face state Rep. Jim Denning in the 8th Senate district primary.

A potential faceoff between Senate incumbents in south Johnson County was avoided when state Sen. Ray Merrick of Stilwell signed up for the 27th District House seat now held by state Rep. Charlotte O’Hara. O’Hara, in turn, signed up for Merrick’s old Senate seat — where she’ll now face incumbent Sen. Pat Apple and Republican Daniel Campbell in the party’s August primary.

Potential changes in the Wyandotte County delegation appeared to be less dramatic than in Johnson County, officials in both parties said.

It may take days, they said, for the true impact of the new districts on the political make-up of the Legislature to become clear.

Members of the Legislature earn a little more than $211 in salary and expenses for each day they’re in session, usually about 90-100 days, although this year’s session was much longer. They earn another $7,083 in expenses for out-of-session costs.

Meanwhile, there may still be changes in the list of candidates. Special software was needed to fully reflect the court-ordered maps, officials said, so it’s possible some candidates may be disqualified for signing up in the wrong district.

Kobach said incumbents whose district number changed in the court-ordered plan will keep their seats. But incumbents who have established a residence in a new district may have to resign their old seat before the primary.

Despite an action-packed weekend, partisans on both sides of the aisle said they’re just getting warmed up.

“My mind is already working about where I need to be positioning us for 2014,” Democrat Wagnon said.

To reach Dave Helling call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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