Moderate Republicans swept to impressive victories in several Kansas legislative races Tuesday, moving GOP moderates and Democrats tantalizingly close to effective control of the state’s legislative agenda next year.
Dinah Sykes and John Skubal, both running on moderate platforms, defeated incumbent conservatives Greg Smith and Jeff Melcher for two Senate seats in Johnson County. Moderates also prevailed in at least five closely watched House districts in the county, defeating conservative incumbent Republicans.
“Looking at all the effort and the work that all of us put in, it paid off,” a jubilant Sykes said in south Overland Park. “I knocked on ten thousand doors. I heard people were frustrated. But actually being frustrated and making sure you vote in a primary is a huge deal. I’m very excited.”
Conservative Republicans appeared to perform somewhat better in other parts of the state, but still lost a handful of contested primaries. Incumbent conservative state Sen. Forrest Knox lost his district, near Wichita, but state Sen. Ty Masterson, Ways and Means chairman, held on in his district northeast of Wichita.
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Incumbent Sen. Terry Bruce of Hutchinson was defeated by moderate Edward Berger in the GOP primary.
Experts said the full impact of the voters’ decisions might not be known until later. But the trend to moderates, and away from conservatives, seemed clear.
“I think it’s showing, at least in Johnson County.... there’s been a change in direction by the Republican voters,” Kansas GOP executive director Clay Barker said. “It seems like with the two Senate races and several House races that voters have preferred a somewhat different direction.”
“This is really a victory for the moderate groups,” said Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University. “They had to get their voters out (Tuesday) and so far it looks like they did.”
The outcome is a stunning rebuke of Gov. Sam Brownback, who has relied on conservative support in the Legislature for six years. Tuesday’s results will likely alter his approach to governing in the final two years of his term.
“If Brownback had been up this year … he would have lost 58 percent to 42 percent,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “And I think voters took it out on these folks.”
The outcome Tuesday did not change the fundamental math of the Legislature: Republicans will still have firm control of both chambers.
But if the moderates nominated Tuesday are elected in November, as expected, and form a coalition with Democrats in January, they may have enough votes to overturn several of Brownback’s initiatives, including controversial tax cuts that are blamed for much of the state’s budget difficulties.
“The Brownback administration is very unpopular in Kansas, and people are ready to make a change,” said Kerry Gooch, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. “I’m excited that some of these extreme conservative Republican legislators are getting what they deserve by being ousted.”
Prominent local Republicans watched the results come in at the Marriott in Overland Park. As the polls closed, supporters mingled in a ballroom downstairs to oldies rock and pop songs while the candidates waited out the voters’ verdict in a handful of hotel rooms upstairs.
On one floor, Greg Smith waited to see if he’d be elected to a second term, while down the hallway his challenger Sykes talked with friends in the moderates’ suite.
As the night went on campaign aides started running down the hallway with results, one yelling, “This is the best day of my life.”
Here are the results of several closely watched races Tuesday:
▪ District 11: Moderate challenger John Skubal defeated incumbent conservative Jeff Melcher by 56 percent to 43 percent. Skubal made increased funding for education a centerpiece of his campaign, while Melcher has defended the Brownback tax cuts as an important economic stimulant in the state. The Johnson County district includes parts of Leawood and Overland Park.
▪ Dist. 21: Incumbent Greg Smith lost to challenger Dinah Sykes, 58 percent to 42 percent. Sykes, considered the moderate in the race, is a former PTA president. Smith, the conservative incumbent, is a teacher and former police officer. The Johnson County district includes Lenexa and parts of Overland Park.
▪ Dist. 20: Incumbent Rob Bruchman lost to moderate challenger Jan Kessinger, 54 percent to 45 percent. Kessinger was strongly critical of Brownback and the state’s economic climate. Bruchman touted his commitment to education funding and public safety. The district is in Johnson County and includes parts of Leawood and Overland Park.
▪ Dist. 28: Joy Koesten defeated incumbent Jerry Lunn, 54 percent to 46 percent. Lunn maintained his support of Brownback’s tax policy while Koesten said it has threatened the state’s revenue stream. The district is in Johnson County and includes parts of Leawood and Overland Park.
▪ Dist. 39: Moderate Shelee Brim prevailed in a three-way primary, defeating conservative Owen Donohoe. Donohoe was trying to return to the Legislature after deciding not to run for re-election in 2012. The district includes parts of Bonner Springs and Shawnee.
Republican moderates also won contested House primaries in District 8, where Patty Markley defeated Craig McPherson by a 15-point margin, and in District 17, where moderate challenger Tom Cox defeated incumbent Brett Hildabrand by 23 points. Both districts are in Johnson County.