If the moderate wing of the Kansas Republican Party wants to make up ground, Tuesday could be its best chance to do that in a while.
All 165 seats in the Kansas Legislature are on the ballot this year, and the primary comes at a time when Gov. Sam Brownback’s approval rating has continued to slide.
The outcome Tuesday could move the party in a different direction, away from Brownback’s tax policies. Or the moderates’ campaign efforts could fail to gain traction in a primary where voter turnout and fundraising can play a large part in the results.
The moderate Republicans did a better job recruiting credible challengers for this primary, KU political science professor Patrick Miller said. Those challengers have the money to get their message to voters, he said, but who wins and loses still hinges on whom the campaigns can get to the polls during low-turnout primaries like Tuesday’s.
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“No matter what anyone is projecting now, I think all we can say is there’s some energy behind the moderates,” Miller said. “But it really comes down to who’s going to vote.”
In the 2012 primary, the conservative wing of the party scored a major victory when it beat the moderates to take control of the Senate. But now, four years after Brownback said tax cuts would give a shot of adrenaline to the Kansas economy, those same cuts, budget holes and education funding questions have helped define this summer’s campaign. And while control of the Senate may be harder to attain in this primary, some believe the House could see more moderate Republicans join its ranks.
In Wichita, Republican Roger Elliott is trying to fill an open seat in the House. The state’s financial picture is bleak, he said, but he’s been encouraged by the support he’s seen for his moderate views.
“They want the financial debacle in Topeka solved immediately,” Elliott said about Kansans. “They’re very upset with the governor. They want correction now.”
Clay Barker, the Kansas GOP executive director, estimated that moderates could pick up seats in the House, but doing so in the Senate would be more difficult. The House could change direction if moderate Republicans working with Democrats pick up more than eight seats, he said. They could then work together to form a majority in the House, Barker said.
It’s unlikely, he estimated, that the moderates and Democrats would be able to win enough seats — nine or more — to form that same kind of voting bloc in the Senate.
“There’s enough close races, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the moderate side, or whatever you want to label them, pick up some seats,” Barker said. “I could be surprised and it could be a wave, or it could go the other way. But I think they’ll probably pick up a few. And I don’t know if it’s enough to change the leadership, like the speaker of the House or the Senate president.”
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a conservative Leavenworth Republican, said an influx of moderates could make it difficult to pass legislation in Topeka.
Fitzgerald said the media, Democrats and moderate Republicans have gone all in on publicizing that the primary could be competitive.
“I’m not sure they’ll be able to do it,” he said about the moderates picking up legislative seats. “We’ll see.”
There’s a reasonable chance moderates could gain some ground on election night, Washburn University political science professor Mark Peterson said, but it will take moderate challengers getting out the vote.
“If the moderates get crushed,” Peterson said, “then we’re looking at same old same old come November when the voter turnout will be higher but the choices will really be more limited.
“If you get through the Republican primary in the state of Kansas, generally speaking, the odds of you actually winning the seat are awfully good.”
The election comes at the end of a summer where challengers’ criticism of the status quo has been fast and frequent. The adequacy of school funding has loomed large during 2016 primary campaigns, and a new school finance plan is expected to be one of the first challenges new legislators will face when they come back to Topeka in 2017. A stopgap bipartisan school funding solution overwhelmingly passed in both chambers during this summer’s special session, but a long-term solution isn’t expected to come as quickly, or as easily, as it did during those two days in June.