Kansas political titans Sam Brownback and Bill Graves are about to wage a war for the heart and soul of the state Legislature, presenting voters with a stark choice about the state’s future.
Graves, a moderate Republican who served as governor from 1995 to 2003 and now lives in Virginia, is planning a trip back to Kansas next week. He plans to help raise money for moderate legislative candidates. He’ll make stops in Johnson County, Wichita and Salina.
Brownback, the state’s current conservative governor, in recent weeks has been quietly endorsing like-minded candidates he’s supporting for the Legislature, despite earlier indications he was staying out of the Aug. 7 primary election.
In Johnson County, five conservative Republicans — three House candidates and two Senate candidates — are claiming the governor’s endorsement.
Brownback also appeared at a fundraiser for several freshmen House candidates in Johnson County last month. And the lieutenant governor also is expected to be in Johnson County raising money for another conservative candidate.
Graves’ return to Kansas turns up the heat in the ongoing battle between conservative and moderate Republicans, especially as they wrestle for control of a state Senate that’s been blocking Brownback’s agenda.
Although political observers acknowledged Graves may not swing a lot of votes, he will lend some fundraising muscle to moderate Republicans who will be up against Brownback’s conservative backers, including the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, a Washington-based group that advocates for tax cuts and smaller government.
“The moderates know that this is their last stand,” explained Joe Aistrup, a political science professor at Kansas State University. “If they don’t step it up and raise the money necessary to compete against the likes of Brownback, the chamber and Americans for Prosperity, their days are numbered.”
Graves will be in Johnson County to help raise money for five Johnson County moderates, including state Sen. Tim Owens, state Rep. Kay Wolf and state Rep. Pat Colloton, who are competing for the state Senate.
Owens is running against conservative Jim Denning. Wolf is facing off against conservative David Harvey. Colloton is up against conservative Jeff Melcher.
Graves’ return also signals that moderate Republicans recognize they are in a political cage match with conservatives who now control the governor’s office, the Kansas House and the secretary of state’s office.
“The moderates who once roamed the plains very freely are now down to a very limited amount of pasture,” Aistrup noted.
A spokesperson for Graves, who is president of the American Trucking Associations based in Virginia, said he was busy and unavailable for comment.
Brownback is in London on a trade mission and also was unavailable for comment. His spokesperson, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, was asked this week about his endorsements and she referred questions to a private email address. E-mails sent to that address were not answered.
The roles that Graves and Brownback will be playing in the primaries illustrates the choices Kansas voters will have when they go to the polls.
“Do I vote with the conservative coalition or do I vote with folks who calls themselves traditional Republicans and have these longstanding roots to the past?” asked Wichita State University political scientist Edward Flentje.
Flentje said that Brownback represents a new era for Kansas Republicans, promising to slash taxes, shrink government and exert a bigger influence on such social issues as abortion.
Graves, meanwhile, reflects an era represented by such legacy Republicans as Alf Landon, Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Dole, who believed the government needed to pay for essential services while limiting taxes and government spending.
“The voters essentially have two choices here,” Flentje said. “Sign up with Brownback and give him a lock-step Legislature. Or not, and vote with these folks who call themselves traditional Republicans.”
For the first two years of his term, Brownback has enjoyed solid support from the House, which cleared the way for a massive tax-cutting plan the governor predicts will promote growth, but critics contend will lead to huge cuts in government services.
However, Brownback has run into problems in the Senate, which hasn’t shared the governor’s vision.
The Senate wasn’t willing, for example, to give the governor the power to select appeals court judges. It also has refused to move forward with labor law changes that supporters maintain will benefit businesses, but critics argue will hurt workers.
The Senate also bottled up the governor’s education finance reform plan, and set aside a proposal that would have linked teacher evaluations to student achievement.
But Derrick Sontag, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said Graves represents a bygone era when moderate Republicans had more influence in party politics.
“The Bill Graves appearance in Kansas is just symbolic of the old guard,” Sontag said. “They may say it, but they don’t really believe in a limited government. Their actions don’t back up their rhetoric at times.”
Over the last decade, Sontag argued, Kansas Republicans have become increasingly conservative. The Republican Party has a big tent, he added, but Graves doesn’t reflect what most Kansans now want from government.
In January, Brownback told The Associated Press that he didn’t anticipate being involved in this summer’s Republican primaries. He said something similar to Stateline, a nonprofit news service for the Pew Center on the States.
However, conservative candidates in Johnson County have started posting endorsements from Brownback on their campaign Web sites. Brownback also was in town last month to help raise money for a group of conservative House members who were first elected in 2010.
Other Brownback endorsements have been cropping up on the Internet. State Rep. Lance Kinzer posted an endorsement from the governor in his race against fellow Republican incumbent Ron Worley in the primary for House District 30 in the Olathe/Lenexa area.
Conservative Rep. Greg Smith also posted an endorsement from Brownback in his Senate race against Republican Joe Beveridge.
State Rep. Denning also said he’s received Brownback’s endorsement for the Senate. Denning is running against incumbent Sen. Tim Owens, who has has been fiercely critical of the tax plan signed by the governor.
Worley said he was disappointed to see Brownback take a position in a race that pits two current Republican members of the House against each other. Worley said he was under the impression the governor wasn’t going to be involved in the primaries.
“The governor hasn’t talked to me about the race and didn’t ask me about my position on the issues,” said Worley, who lives in Lenexa. “I feel like I’ve been reasonably supportive of the governor on a number of things over the last two years.”
Worley voted against the tax cuts that Brownback signed into law because he believed they would hurt schools. He speculated that could have influenced the governor’s endorsement decision.
Kinzer, who shares Brownback’s staunch opposition to abortion, said he asked for the governor’s endorsement. He said Brownback has endorsed him previously.
“I didn’t have any detailed conversations with the governor about what his thought process was. I really just made a simple, brief request that he consider making an endorsement in the race,” said Kinzer, who lives in Olathe. “I am gratified he made the decision that he did.”
Brownback hasn’t been to Johnson County to help Kinzer. But Kinzer said that Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer is scheduled to hold a fund-raiser for him next week.
Smith, an Overland Park Republican, said that he didn’t seek Brownback’s endorsement but that the governor offered it. Smith has been supportive of the governor efforts to cut taxes and select appeals court judges.
“I have always said that Gov. Brownback, I believe, is a good man trying to do the right thing for the state of Kansas,” Smith said.
But Smith’s Republican opponent, Joe Beveridge of Lenexa, was bewildered by the governor’s endorsement.
“I don’t know why Gov. Brownback endorsed my opponent. You’d have to ask him,” Beveridge said. “He never bothered to contact me and learn about the issues that I am discovering are important to Lenexa and Overland Park voters as I go door-to-door through the district.”
It’s not the first time Brownback has mixed it up in a Republican primary. He endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the presidential primary, only to watch Perry withdraw from the race after stumbling in debates. Brownback recently endorsed former U.S. Rep. David Weldon in a four-way Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in Florida.
But Aistrup, the K-State professor, said many governors shy away from primaries — unless they want to get rid of someone who is a thorn in the party’s side.
Former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, for instance, once teamed up with Democratic state Sen. Anthony Henlsey to defeat conservative Democrat Mark Gilstrap of Kansas City, Kan. Gilstrap had opposed Sebelius on education funding and her efforts to deny permits for two western Kansas coal plants.
Gilstrap eventually lost to current Sen. Kelly Kultala. Gilstrap is now a Republican and is running for the seat again.
There are risks to endorsing in legislative primaries if the candidate you didn’t back wins, Aistrup noted.
“You may create an enemy out of that legislator for the rest of your life,” he said.