Republicans and Democrats in Kansas began a mad scramble for candidates Friday in the wake of a dramatic redrawing of district boundary lines affecting every member of Congress and the state Legislature.
The new lines — drawn by a panel of three federal judges after lawmakers couldn’t complete the task — resulted in a flood of legislative seats without incumbents. That means a host of fresh faces will be in Topeka next January, and that party leaders are under a severe time crunch to find candidates before Monday’s noon filing deadline for the August primary.
“It’s probably the most disruptive redistricting in Kansas history,” said Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the state’s chief elections officer.
No less than the future course of the Brownback administration, which is seeking to stamp the state with a more conservative imprint, could be affected by the boundary-line shuffle, as well as the prospects for a billion-dollar bio-defense lab planned for Manhattan, Kan.
Under the new maps, the Kansas State University community moves from the 2nd Congressional District to the 1st, which is now represented by a staunch conservative, U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp. He’s known as a budget hawk who wants to curtail federal spending.
The new lines, however, were not expected to jeopardize the four incumbent members of Congress, all Republicans. The judges avoided maps that split Topeka and Lawrence.
The 3rd Congressional District, now represented by GOP freshman Rep. Kevin Yoder, drops a portion of Lawrence in the new map, making the 3rd District even more Republican.
Kobach said he won’t appeal the new maps, which were handed down late Thursday night, catching many off-guard. And he said he had no authority to delay Monday’s filing deadline, or the Aug. 7 primary, to give candidates more time to decide what office they’re running for and to campaign.
State law requires that candidates be residents of their legislative districts when they file, which caused some party officials to joke that a lot of apartments will be rented over this weekend.
“We’re acting with urgency to make sure we have a candidate in every district,” said Kansas GOP executive director Clay Barker.
Jason Perkey, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, said he was fielding calls in the wee hours of the morning in an attempt to track down candidates. “I didn’t go to sleep last night,” he said.
In the House, 25 of the chamber’s 125 seats now lack incumbents. And more than 40 incumbents were tossed into potential races with other House members.
In the Senate, four of the 40 seats have no incumbent in the new maps, and four of the new districts become home to more than one incumbent.
In all, it was a remarkable political shakeup at a pivotal time in state government as Brownback heads toward the midpoint of his four-year term.
One unanswered question Friday was what happens if no one files for a legislative seat?
“This really is uncharted waters,” Kobach acknowledged. “So many districts without any incumbents, and so many incumbents pitted against each other. It’ll be a very exciting day on Monday.”
Following release of the new maps, one influential Johnson County lawmaker announced his retirement. State Sen. John Vratil, a Leawood Republican, said he would not seek a fourth term this year. A leading moderate, Vratil had fought several Brownback initiatives and was fiercely opposed to the $3.7 billion tax cut that the governor signed.
But Vratil said the new district lines were not the reason for his decision. “When I lose enthusiasm and it becomes hard work to do something, it’s time to move on,” he said.
Veteran Rep. Pat Colloton, a Leawood Republican and moderate, announced that she would run for Vratil’s old seat. Also in the race is conservative Jeff Melcher.
Under the new maps, fast-growing Johnson County will have nine state Senate seats, instead of seven, that are completely, or partially, inside county limits. In the House, the county’s delegation jumps from 22 to 25.
Yet party officials said it could take a week or two to determine which factions won, and which lost, as a result of the new maps. The House is expected to stay under conservative control. But the Senate, now controlled by moderates, hangs in the balance.
On that front, state Sen. Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican and moderate, ended a bit of suspense by announcing he will seek another term. One of Owens’ possible conservative challengers, Rep. Greg Smith, an Overland Park Republican, does not live in Owens’ district, but may run for an open seat in an adjoining district.
Moderates caught a break because the map kept conservative challengers out of the Senate districts of Carolyn McGinn, a Republican from Sedgwick, and Jean Schodorf, a Wichita Republican.
The new maps became an issue because the Legislature is required to redraw districts every 10 years to account for population shifts documented by the Census. Brownback also had made it clear that he wanted more conservatives in the Senate to support his agenda.
But lawmakers fought bitterly over how the districts should be drawn almost from the session’s start. Conservatives complained that moderates were attempting to draw safe districts that excluded conservative challengers, while moderates said Brownback and his allies had targeted them for elimination.
As the filing deadline approached, a lawsuit was filed to settle the matter. The three judges who drew the new maps were Chief Judge Kathryn Vratil (John Vratil’s ex-wife), Senior Judge John Lungstrom from the Kansas City federal District Court, and Mary Beck Briscoe, chief judge of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In their 206-page opinion, the judges were sharply critical of the Legislature for not completing the maps.
“While legislators publicly demurred that they had done the best they could, the impasse resulted from a bitter ideological feud — largely over the new Senate districts,” the judges wrote.
“Failing consensus, the process degenerated into blatant efforts to gerrymander various districts for ideological political advantage and to serve the political ambitions of various legislators.”
The fact that the judges finished the task of preparing new maps in just days was not lost on political leaders.
“If you take out the subjective judgment of legislators who know the people on the ground and the issues and communities that want to stay together, it just becomes a dry mathematical exercise,” said Barker, the Kansas GOP’s executive director. “That allowed it to be done very, very quickly.”
But Perkey of the Kansas Democratic Party called the process “politics at its worst.”
“You have incumbents who have the capacity to pick up and move somewhere else that’s nearby...You just need to sign a lease, or you have a family member who has the capacity to maybe offer up their home and do a home swap,” he said. “It’s not any way to do anything that’s efficient and effective.”
Meanwhile, Senate President Steve Morris, a Hugoton Republican, said the frustrating process should spur lawmakers to consider naming a non-partisan panel to handle redistricting in the future.
“I would support that kind of arrangement, but we have people in our party who will jump up and down and yell and scream that it has to be done by the Legislature,” Morris noted.
Kobach agreed that the Legislature bears some of the blame for the last-minute confusion.
“Given what was happened, the way the lines have been so drastically altered, I don’t think 10 years from now the Legislature is going to make the same mistake,” he said.