Government & Politics

Convinced of voter distress, Johnson County candidates line up against conservatives

Leesa Gabel, a moderate Republican from Olathe, is running for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives. She’s one of several candidates from Johnson County challenging conservative Republicans.
Leesa Gabel, a moderate Republican from Olathe, is running for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives. She’s one of several candidates from Johnson County challenging conservative Republicans.

Leesa Gabel of Olathe has never run for elective office before now, but she’s feeling a powerful tug to try to grab a seat in the Kansas Legislature.

Gabel is a mother of two, a technical writer, a cancer survivor — and another Johnson County moderate Republican distressed by the policies of Gov. Sam Brownback and his conservative Republican allies in Topeka.

By announcing her campaign for a Kansas House seat, she joins a steady stream of moderate Republicans and some Democrats who have the idea that it’s time to storm the Capitol.

“I really think 2016 is going to be a change year,” Gabel said.

Vicki Hiatt of Shawnee, a lifelong Democrat, recently announced her campaign for the Senate seat held by conservative Republican Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook.

“It’s an uphill battle,” acknowledged the retired special education teacher about running as a Democrat in Johnson County. “But I think it’s important to elect more Democrats for a better balance of power.”

With the current wounded state of the Democratic Party in Kansas, electing a spate of both moderate Republicans and Democrats, particularly to the Senate, is the only way to break the dominance of conservative Republicans in the Legislature, analysts say.

Before the conservative takeover in 2010 and 2012, the Legislature had been characterized as home to three “parties”: moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans and Democrats. It was a situation that required negotiation and compromise.

Campaigns targeting conservatives began many weeks ago. Political newcomer Dinah Sykes of Lenexa was one of the first with her primary challenge of Republican Sen. Greg Smith. Cindy Holscher, another newcomer from Overland Park, recently announced her Democratic challenge to conservative Republican Rep. Amanda Grosserode.

Incumbents in Johnson County often draw primary and general election opponents, so the question is whether voters are as upset as these candidates are with current policy in Topeka.

At a recent meet and greet in Prairie Village with Johnson County moderates Rep. Melissa Rooker, Rep. Stephanie Clayton, Rep. Barbara Bollier and Sen. Kay Wolf, Rooker put it this way: “There is a growing sense of unrest.”

The latest Kansas Speaks poll, a random sampling of state residents by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University, certainly detected negativity, particularly on the hot-button issues of taxes and education.

Sixty-one percent called Brownback’s tax policy “a failure” or “a tremendous failure” in terms of economic growth.

Sixty-four percent felt the block grant plan for state school financing resulted in a lower quality of education.

As for survey respondents’ satisfaction with Brownback’s performance, 18 percent were very or somewhat satisfied, 13 percent were neutral and 69 percent were somewhat or very dissatisfied.

Chapman Rackaway, political science professor at Fort Hays State, said it makes sense, given limited campaign resources, for moderates and Democrats to target certain races. That’s what happening in Wichita with Democrat Lynn Rogers challenging high-profile Republican Sen. Michael O’Donnell.

Brownback won’t be on the ballot in 2016, which makes it tougher for challengers to mine dissatisfaction with him, Rackaway said.

But by making inroads on the House side and altering the balance of power in the Senate next year, a “full-on assault” could be readied for 2018, when Democrats would have a gubernatorial candidate to rally around, Chapman said.

Lee Kinch, Kansas Democratic Party chairman, said the process of recruiting candidates is ongoing “for every House and Senate district in which we can be competitive.” Expect more names to be announced, he said.

“I would say 2016 should be a good year to pick up seats,” he said.

Not so fast, said Kelly Arnold, Kansas Republican Party chairman. Conservative Republicans have enjoyed major success in the last three election cycles, he said.

“That’s a direct reflection of the direction Kansans are going, in a more conservative route, and that’s why we’ve had major success,” he said. “I don’t see 2016 as any change in that.”

The party will not only defend its legislative seats but also identify Democratic seats to target, Arnold said.

And just ahead of the 2016 election year, Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick, a Stilwell Republican, recently moved several moderate Republicans off key committees in the Legislature.

Gabel, who will challenge Rep. Keith Esau of Olathe in the Republican primary next August, sees the long-running school funding battle between the state and school districts as front and center for voters.

Gabel’s two children attend schools in the Olathe district. The financial squeeze felt in some school programs won’t be tolerated by parents, she said.

“They’ve given the conservative Republicans a chance,” she said. “I think the pendulum is going to swing the other way.”

Edward M. Eveld: 816-234-4442, @EEveld