Kansas moderates came back strong this week, and a large grassroots effort by Johnson County parents and teachers may have helped make it possible.
Tuesday’s primary began to reshape the Kansas Legislature as moderate Republican candidates across the state won back seats from conservative incumbents who had dominated the capitol since early 2013. And after months of advocacy, rallies and forums, local grassroots groups described the election as a major victory.
Among the groups was Stand Up Blue Valley, the concerned coalition of Johnson County parents who rallied at the Capitol, advocated on social media and, come election night, saw each of the candidates they endorsed win their primaries.
The MainStream Coalition, operators of the MainPAC, went door to door to try to get out the vote.
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Game On for Kansas Schools checked candidate postcards against their own views and posted incumbents’ votes on education issues.
And the Johnson County Educators group contacted other teachers, operated a phone bank and hosted community forums about the education issues facing Kansas.
“All we really needed to do was convey that message to our voters, to the patrons of our community, and they responded,” said Jennifer Jarrell, one of Stand Up Blue Valley’s leaders. “This is a victory for them. ... This isn’t about us. This isn’t even really about the candidates. It’s about the community standing up. And I’m so pleased.”
Groups like Stand Up Blue Valley and Game On educated voters, state Rep. Barbara Bollier said. The Johnson County moderate who is seeking a Senate seat was unopposed in Tuesday’s primary, but she now faces a challenge from Democrat Megan England for the District 7 seat.
“The fact that they were willing to challenge what has been presented as the status quo played a significant role,” Bollier said.
Kansas started taking moderates for granted, MainStream Coalition executive director Brandi Fisher said. People had become disengaged from state politics, she said, and this summer, they woke up.
“It’s taken a little bit of time at the grassroots level to counter that,” Fisher said of past voter apathy.
State Sen. Jeff Melcher, one of the conservative Republicans ousted from office Tuesday, said the grassroots groups were overplaying their impact.
“It wouldn’t have really mattered, I don’t think, who the candidates are,” Melcher said. “It was just that they wanted us out.”
When he campaigned in his district, Melcher said, he heard that voters weren’t happy with Gov. Sam Brownback. The Legislature had done all the dirty work for the governor, Melcher said, and on Tuesday the incumbents felt the brunt of voter dissatisfaction.
“He wasn’t willing to lead,” Melcher said. “He wasn’t willing to communicate.”
There’s still an education funding formula that legislators need to revise when they return to Topeka in January. There’s also the possibility that a more moderate Legislature could look to roll back the tax cuts and economic policies that have become a hallmark of the governor’s tenure.
Moving forward, Bollier said, it will take effort to keep the moderates’ idea of government in place. And to do that, she said, these grassroots groups help by keeping Kansans engaged in politics.
“This is only the beginning,” she said. Tuesday night “was the wedding, and then we’ve got the marriage. We want to keep the marriage healthy, and we’re expecting it to last many years. And so that’s going to take work.”
Both moderates and conservatives agree there will be tough decisions to make in the Capitol next year. Projected revenue shortfalls have become a recurring theme for the state. That could cause new lawmakers to make votes that could be easily criticized by challengers on the campaign trail in two years’ time.
The challenge for the grassroots groups will be to keep voters engaged, Game On executive director Judith Deedy said. She still hasn’t forgotten the conservative wave that ousted moderate incumbents in the 2012 election.
“You’ve got to vote again,” she said. “You’ve got to show up again.”
Though she’s happy with the pickups, Johnson County Educators founder Barb Casey said there’s more work still to come. There’s still the general election in November, where Casey, an elementary school teacher, said it’s possible more incumbents could be replaced.
“We’re not done yet,” Casey said.