Joco 913

Moderate GOP candidates in Kansas hope to make inroads in the Legislature

Political campaign signs dot a yard on 71st Terrace in Prairie Village. Moderate Republicans such as Barbara Bollier are hoping to make inroads in the Kansas Legislature this election.
Political campaign signs dot a yard on 71st Terrace in Prairie Village. Moderate Republicans such as Barbara Bollier are hoping to make inroads in the Kansas Legislature this election.

It was time for solutions, they said, and time for common sense in Topeka.

That was the message many Johnson County moderate Republicans worked to convey in their primary races in August, and for the most part it worked.

Many of their campaigns tried to make a sharp contrast with their more conservative Republican primary opponents. That move, as well as Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s unpopularity, probably helped moderates to a wave of wins that sent incumbent conservatives, such as state senators Jeff Melcher and Greg Smith, packing.

But now those same moderate candidates are working to define themselves in the general election while trying to avoid angering voters who still support Brownback.

And they may also be affected by the ballot fortunes of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

The Kansas Legislature is likely to be more moderate in 2017 than it has been in past years because of those initial moderate gains. But before that can happen, the candidates have to make it through a general election where even the state GOP’s executive director has said Brownback’s legacy and Trump’s campaign rhetoric could impact legislative races, especially for moderate candidates.

“They run as anti-Brownback, well, the Democrat can always outdo them on that issue,” Kansas GOP executive director Clay Barker said. “So how do they distinguish themselves? If they go too conservative, then their supporters may walk away. If they go too moderate, the conservatives won’t vote for them. They each have to weave that their own way.

“It’s the same thing with Trump,” he said. “You can’t push back too hard or his supporters get fired up. But if you like him too much, then a lot of the people in the middle, and especially women, they’ll just say (to) ‘hell with this.’ 

Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty said there seems to still be discontent among voters.

“You have an unpopular governor,” he said. “You have dissatisfaction with the budget issue … and then you have some Republicans not happy with Trump. So that sounds like a top to bottom dissatisfaction in Kansas, or Johnson County, with Republicans.”

That discontent led to a press conference earlier this month in which Republican Senate candidates, led by Senate President Susan Wagle, presented a plan to “better Kansas.”

And while more than two dozen signed on to that plan, moderate Johnson County Republican candidates such as Dinah Sykes, John Skubal and Barbara Bollier were nowhere to be found among that group.

The proposal, which avoided directly criticizing Brownback, did say that “Kansas is on the wrong track today” and that “change is needed.” Though light on specifics, it did call for a tax policy “that is fair to all.”

The plan showed that the Republicans had heard voters’ concerns, Wagle said, and that the legislators are going to fix it.

“People are angry, they’re frustrated,” Wagle said. “They want solutions.”

But by not directly criticizing the governor, one of the more prominent Democrats in Kansas said, it shows the conundrum Kansas Republicans have to deal with in the general election.

“They’ve got a huge problem on their hands, because they have a very unpopular incumbent governor who they can’t disown publicly,” Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said. “But my guess is, they’re doing everything they can in their literature to distance themselves.”

And Sykes said that even though the plan was similar to views she has campaigned on, she decided not to jump on board with the coalition of 26 Republicans. That group included moderates, as well as Ty Masterson and Steve Fitzgerald, two of the more conservative incumbents.

“I don’t know how it helped or hurt me,” Sykes said of not endorsing the plan.

Sykes said she was just focused on her race and representing “the average Kansan.”

“There are so many Republicans that are just frustrated (with) extremists and the lack of common sense,” Sykes said. “The historical Kansan, we’re moderate.”

While many candidates on the ballot have criticized Brownback’s policies and tenure in office, especially in light of news that the state is in a $60 million budget hole, conservative Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook said she appreciates much of the two-term governor’s work.

She noted that she’d had some disagreements with Brownback, but the incumbent said her views have remained steady on other Brownback policies, including the controversial 2012 tax cuts, which she still supports.

“I believe integrity is important,” Pilcher-Cook said. “I will not do things just to get elected. If I can’t do it with integrity, I won’t do it at all.”

During the primary, moderate candidates frequently criticized the state’s tax policy and how education funding for K-12 schools was handled. Since the August election, the adequacy portion of the Gannon v. Kansas education lawsuit has begun in front of the Kansas Supreme Court, and the state has continued to miss revenue benchmarks to start the first quarter of the fiscal year.

During that time, Brownback has maintained his rank as the most unpopular governor in the country. He told reporters earlier this month that he had been traveling around the state making presentations about his policies.

“I haven’t been traveling out around the state campaigning,” Brownback said. “… A lot of this campaign season is based on myth.”

Members of both parties have said they’re not sure how much Brownback will work with what will likely be a more moderate Legislature in 2017.

Some Democrats, like Sykes’ opponent in Senate District 21, Logan Heley, have taken a skeptical tone about moderates being elected.

“If (Sykes) were to go to Topeka, she’d need to either kowtow to the Sam Brownback members of her Republican caucus, or she’d be relegated to the sidelines, like a number of other moderate Republicans have,” Heley said.

Part of that criticism drew the ire of Bollier, a moderate state representative who is running against Democrat Megan England for the state Senate in District 7.

“These people didn’t work as hard as they’ve worked to take out the people who were aligned with Brownback to then go back and then support him,” Bollier said. “That is an absurd deduction.”

Kansas is in a crisis, she said, that could take a decade to remedy.

“I don’t care where you are, conservative, moderate, Democrat, Libertarian, whatever you want to call yourself,” Bollier said. “We have a problem that we’ve got to fix, and we’ve got to work together.”

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw

Related stories from Kansas City Star