Gov. Sam Brownback went all-out to elect a like-minded conservative Legislature.
The Republican took sides in primary races against moderates while his business allies poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into conservatives’ campaigns.
The 2012 election delivered Brownback a House and Senate much in his own image. That legislature responded by passing deep income tax cuts the governor sees as critical to an economic boon.
But this year lawmakers careened off into an array of social issues, setting the state abuzz and making it a punch line for late-night comics.
Consider what’s happened so far:
• Sonograms conducted on two pregnant women in a statehouse committee room.
• A bill critics said would have allowed discrimination against same-sex couples based on religious grounds.
• Legislation introduced to make getting a divorce more difficult.
There was a bill outlawing surrogate pregnancy for pay, another requiring that the public be told that fluoride diminishes brain power and legislation blocking any federal attempt to protect an endangered bird on the prairie.
The headline-grabbing bills — many of which likely won’t pass — didn’t come from the governor’s office.
But political analysts say they could complicate Brownback’s bid for a second term against his likely Democratic challenger, state Rep. Paul Davis.
The bills draw attention to Brownback’s social conservatism, sometimes on issues that don’t play well in the polls. Meanwhile, the bills detract from his signature achievement: Sweeping tax cuts.
The combination threatens the GOP incumbent with a return to the dynamics of the near past, when moderate Republicans aligned with the state’s Democratic minority.
“What could be dangerous for Brownback is that he’s associated with some of this legislation,” said Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty. “It’s an open question whether he can distance himself from this even if he didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Brownback political adviser David Kensinger quickly dismissed any notion that Republican bills getting headlines will affect the governor’s re-election bid.
“Voters care about real results,” Kensinger wrote in an email, “not dead legislation.”
Kensinger said the governor is working on getting funding for all-day kindergarten, which also faces an uphill fight from conservative lawmakers who question the program’s value.
Kensinger wouldn’t say whether Brownback supported any of the bills that have drawn wide attention and some ridicule. The governor generally does not talk about pending bills unless they’re part of his annual address kicking off the legislative session.
Republicans were not the only ones pushing an eyebrow-raising bill this year.
A Democrat introduced a bill that would allow parents and teachers to spank children hard enough to leave marks. It, too, made late-night comedy television.
Kensinger asked why Davis — as House minority leader — didn’t stop the spanking bill from being introduced.
Davis turned the issue back on the governor. He blamed Brownback for not doing more to focus the Legislature.
“He has demonstrated no leadership in facilitating a discussion about restoring funding to Kansas schools or getting the economy moving,” Davis said in a statement.
The spanking bill has been shelved. A spokeswoman for Davis said the Democrat is pleased with the bill’s apparent demise.
But most of the legislation creating the chatter in Topeka has come from Republicans.
Beatty said their controversial bills might push moderate Republicans to Davis.
It wasn’t so long ago, Beatty said, that Kansans elected Democrat Kathleen Sebelius governor with the aid of moderate Republican voters.
Moderate Republicans, he said, will buck Kansas politicians they think overreach.
He pointed to 2006, when then-Attorney General Phill Kline, a Republican known for his opposition to abortion, lost by 16 percentage points to Democrat Paul Morrison.
“A Republican has to be careful at any time in Kansas,” Beatty said.
Now Brownback enters his re-election campaign with a sagging approval rating and polls showing him in a dead heat with Davis. Polls, however, indicate that Davis is still relatively unknown as the campaign gets started.
House Speaker Ray Merrick conceded that the House’s actions could have political ramifications for its members as well as the governor.
“A lot of this stuff does hurt us,” the Johnson County Republican said. “Anything we do affects him and reflects on us.”
Republicans say the bills gin up media coverage and Internet chatter in the short term. But in the long run, voters will forget.
“I don’t think it will be damaging come November,” said Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. “Most people have a pretty fixed idea about what each party’s brand is.”
Barker said it’s hard to pin the Legislature’s actions on Brownback because he didn’t spend political capital endorsing their proposals.
“I don’t think people will consider the Legislature owned by Sam Brownback,” he said.
Others wonder whether Brownback can insulate himself from legislators he endorsed.
“They’re his people,” said Rep. Barbara Bollier, a Republican from Mission Hills. “He works hard to get them support financially.”
While Republicans are hoping that some of the memories of this legislative session will quickly wisp away, experts said the political damage already might be done.
“When you’re the subject of national media jokes, it’s never a positive thing,” said Fort Hays State University political science professor Chapman Rackaway.
He said some Kansans could resent the national attention. Even dismissed as coastal elitism, he said, it can still resonate.
“You will hear a message so long before you wonder if there’s something to it,” Rackaway said. “It totally takes (Republicans) off the message Brownback wants to put out there about taxes and jobs. It’s totally unproductive.”