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Midwest Democracy | Can Kansas moderates recover after Tuesday's conservative sweep?

The joke used to be that the Democratic caucus in the Kansas Senate was so small it could meet in a phone booth.

Soon, moderate Senate Republicans could probably meet in one, too.

If Tuesday’s primary results hold through the fall, the Kansas Senate would be left with five moderate Republicans after conservatives won decisively in key Senate races on Tuesday. Conservatives defeated seven moderate incumbents who were blamed for blocking Gov. Sam Brownback’s agenda.

“It was an ugly election,” said former state Senate President Dick Bond, a moderate Republican who backed several Johnson County Senate candidates who lost Tuesday.

The road back for moderates will be difficult — and maybe even out of reach.

“Moderate Republicans as an elected class are on the ropes,” said Bob Beatty, political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka. “They’ve lost the ability to garner an electoral majority.”

The only thing that might change that, experts said, is if moderate voters feel pinched by conservative policies.

Before Tuesday’s primary, moderate Republicans made up 14 of the 40 members of the Kansas Senate. Conservatives won two primaries in Johnson County Senate districts now represented by moderates and will face Democratic opposition in the general election.

The conservative sweep was best illustrated out west, where Senate President Steve Morris, a moderate Republican from Hugoton, was beaten by state Rep. Larry Powell of Garden City.

“The moderate presence in the Senate has dwindled to very few at this point. I am not sure where we go from here,” Morris said.

State Rep. Kay Wolf of Prairie Village was the only moderate Senate candidate to win in Johnson County, and she had to raise a little more than $90,000 for her campaign. And she, too, still has a Democratic challenger.

Wolf pledged to check the conservative agenda. She said she would work to maintain funding for schools, social services and infrastructure.

“I have a lot of friends on both sides,” Wolf said. “I am not a draw-a-line-in-the-sand person.”

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce, subsidized heavily with money from Koch Industries, spent more than $600,000 helping conservative candidates, many times with ads linking moderates with President Barack Obama.

Chamber spokesman Jeff Glendening said the setback for moderates will be steep to overcome. He even suggested that moderates might even start playing along with the conservatives in the Senate.

“What are they anymore?” Glendening asked. “It would be awfully difficult to come back from losing that big. Most of these moderates hadn’t been challenged before, and the first time they were challenged they lost.”

Moderate Republicans did see some limited successes in Johnson County, where Melissa Rooker of Fairway and Stephanie Clayton of Overland Park won GOP primaries for the House. Both beat candidates who got a nominal contribution from the conservative-leaning Kansas Chamber of Commerce. Both face Democratic foes in the general election.

Rooker said her race didn’t draw the hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside money that was flowing into the Senate races. She said she thought that made a difference.

“We were running a local race. We weren’t dealing with outside interests,” Rooker said.

Nevertheless, Tuesday’s results leave the moderates without much of a voice in the Legislature and maybe just one more crack at conservatives in two years, experts said.

The outcome makes it harder to write off the conservative sweep in Kansas in 2010 as a fluke, Beatty said.

“The really big question is: What happened to the moderate voters?” he asked.

“There were moderates running for office, so it’s not like the moderate candidates weren’t there,” he said.

Beatty speculated that moderate voters may not be angry enough to go to the polls in droves.

“It may take some policies that really affect moderate Republicans for them to come back,” he said.

But that may mean waiting, maybe more than one or two election cycles, experts said.

While there has been a lot of rhetoric about the effect of the massive income tax cuts approved by the Legislature this year, the real effect may not be known for years.

“If it comes to fruition that more people move to Kansas and the tax rolls swell, (Brownback) is going to look like a genius,” said Fort Hays State University political scientist Chapman Rackaway. “If moderates are going to make a run at him, they need to bank on being able to say, ‘Brownback tried it and it was a disaster. We need to go in a different direction.’ ”

Bond agreed that something may need to go terribly wrong for moderates to get motivated to support more centrist-leaning Republicans. More cuts for schools and other state services might gin up more moderate support, he said.

“Where is the Kansas of Eisenhower, Dole and Kassebaum?” Bond asked.

“I suspect it will only come back when disaster strikes — and I believe it will — from the kind of policies that the far right has proposed and led by Governor Brownback.”