A group of moderate Republicans is hoping to change the direction of the party in Kansas by pushing its own candidates and opening a dialogue with the public before the 2014 election.
By CHRIS HUNTER
The Salina Journal
Traditional Republicans for Common Sense is led by more than 70 former Republican elected officials with more than 700 years of combined experience at the state and national level.
“We, as a group, think the state is heading in the wrong direction as a far as education policy, tax policy and judicial selection,” said former Kansas Rep. Charlie Roth, of Salina. “The group is gaining momentum and we will be active through the next election cycle, not only in support of candidates but in what we think is a common-sense approach to government.
“It is my belief that the Republican Party has been hijacked by the extreme wing of the party.”
Roth said the group started three years ago and participated, to a limited extent, in the 2010 and 2012 elections. He said the majority of those in the group have worked together for years.
He said the group’s members are concerned with the direction the state has taken after allies of Gov. Sam Brownback were swept into office in 2012, knocking out several former Republican senators, who now are listed as founding members of Traditional Republicans for Common Sense.
United by education
Former U.S. Sen. and Lt. Gov. Sheila Frahm, of Colby, said the group is united by an interest in adequate funding for education and the “developing tax dilemma.” Frahm, who was one of Brownback’s first political victims when he defeated her in 1996, said the Kansas Legislature and Brownback are hurting Kansans by cutting education funding and slashing taxes too much.
“Our concern is where our taxes are going if we continue the sales tax and income tax reductions,” Frahm said.
“We are having the middle class paying so many of the bills. Property taxes are going to increase at home for all counties as we make up for cuts,” Frahm said. “Also, the state can’t continue to say it is funding education and then make cuts that pass the buck to the local level. Our concern is how we are going to deal with what is happening in the future.”
According to the group’s website, the tax policy will result in a $2.5 billion deficit to the state’s general fund by 2018.
Randy Duncan, of Salina, chairman of the Republican Party’s 1st Congressional District, said he hadn’t heard about the group. After reading information on its website, kansascommonsense.com, he characterized it as a group made up of former elected officials who no longer fall in line with the Republican Party.
“This group called Traditional Common Sense Republicans does not represent the majority views of Kansas Republicans,” Duncan said. “They represent old, worn out ideas. If this group was reflective of the opinions of the majority of Republican voters, they would not be former elected officials but would hold office today.”
Change in priorities
Former Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Hays, said the conservative takeover started when he joined the Legislature in 1997.
“When I arrived in Topeka, the people that called themselves conservatives had just won the Speaker’s (of the House) seat,” Johnson said. “There were moderates who didn’t agree with them but it seems like each election since then, there were more and more of those who called themselves conservatives and people who call themselves moderates were being pushed aside. It got worse and worse.”
Roth said the Republican Party that took over didn’t hold the same values as traditional Republicans.
“We believe in limited government and market capitalism,” Roth said. “There are parts of the new Republican Party that want me to be anti-immigrant, homophobic and other things I don’t want to be. They want to count my church attendance. I’m not that type of Republican.”
Duncan said the two primary issues that Kansas Republicans vote on in GOP primaries are “the Second Amendment and its protections, like supporting conceal and carry, and being pro-life.”
Johnson said the moderates had been willing to compromise instead of forcing issues.
“I consider myself to be a Bob Dole and Dwight Eisenhower Republican,” Johnson said. “I was willing to work with the other side. We were part of a group that teamed up with Democrats on one occasion to pass a budget that the right wing didn’t want passed.”
Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, said he hadn’t heard about the group. Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Assaria, said he had limited knowledge of the group despite knowing several of its founders, including Roth.
“It has been a moderate group that wants to lead the party in that direction instead of the conservative direction, which is currently leading the group,” Johnson said. “I’ve not heard anything from them, except receiving a few information letters.”
Claeys said the group is made up of victims of the conservative push within the party.
“What you have is some people that didn’t do well in the election that think there is a bigger force than the electorate, who didn’t like their decisions,” Claeys said. “They are looking for the bogeyman but he isn’t there. The rhetoric isn’t helpful.”
Claeys said the group’s argument about taxes is not a new one.
“They are essentially making the Democrats’ argument on the tax plan and income tax,” Claeys said. “Our plan isn’t radical. Many states don’t have an income tax. It seems like they are making the Democrats’ talking points.”
Claeys said the Republican Party is large and diverse, welcomes new ideas and allows disagreement.
“We are not 100 percent in agreement,” Claeys said. “I have disagreed with the governor on tax policy, the continuation of the (higher) sales tax foremost among them. There are a lot of different and diverse opinions.”
Steven Johnson said he hasn’t been contacted by the group but tries to work with everyone in Topeka.
“I’ve carefully tried to walk the line and work well with both groups,” Johnson said. “There are two groups in Topeka, and nationwide. I am fiscally conservative, which aligns with the group on the right, but part of paying your bills is the tax policy that is in line with the traditional Republicans.”
Brownback is expected to be the Republican candidate for governor in 2014, but the group might try to find its own candidate. House Minority Leader Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, is the only Democratic challenger, so far.
“We haven’t determined who we would support,” Roth said. “We are Republicans. We would like a Republican governor. We would like the current administration to be more sensible.”
Roth said the group is likely to target the Kansas House of Representatives because it has a larger contingent of moderates than the Kansas Senate.
“The House has a traditional Republican contingent,” Roth said. “The contingent in the Senate was diminished in the 2012 election. The governor and his cohorts pretty much eliminated the traditional Republican majority.”
Former Republican Sens. Pete Brungardt, of Salina; Steve Morris, of Hugoton; Terrie Huntington, of Fairway; Jean Schodorf, of Wichita; Tim Owens, of Overland Park; and John Vratil, of Leawood, were ousted in 2012 after being targeted by conservative groups. Only Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, survived her re-election bid against a candidate backed by conservative groups.
Claeys agreed that the Senate is more conservative than the House but wouldn’t label any House members as moderates.
“We have a lot of folks that are new and I’m not willing to toss a label on them,” Claeys said. “They are representing their district. Labeling people doesn’t help when we are trying to get meaningful legislation passed.”
Frahm said the group is watching the political landscape but does expect the House to be a target.
Claeys said groups like the Traditional Republicans for Common Sense are hurting legislators and constituents by focusing on ideology.
“Groups like this tend to not help with the legislative process and it pushes people into a corner when you talk political ideology,” Claeys said. “Whether it is the Democrats or Republicans trying to push this divide in the Republican Party, it doesn’t help the debate. There should be a debate and it would help us come to good decisions.”
Steven Johnson said the group’s goal is part of a larger discussion taking place across the country within the Republican Party.
“We are dealing with a divide in the Republican Party on a state basis, and you see an attempt by both groups to shape the direction of the party,” he said. “I think we need to have that discussion. It is supposed to be a discussion where you have both perspectives at the table.”
“We are also seeing this split nationally, and some people are defining where you fall on issues fiscally and socially,” Johnson said. “That is a usually a heated debate. The debate is necessary and I think the heated part is inevitable.”
Frahm said the group is focusing on Kansas and isn’t part of a nationwide movement within the party.
“But, Kansas is a microcosm of the big picture,” Frahm said. “Sometimes, we are leading what is going on nationwide.”