Government & Politics

Gov. Sam Brownback still a key player despite moderate gains in Kansas Legislature

Whether Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback will listen to voters’ message in nominating more moderates is unknown.
Whether Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback will listen to voters’ message in nominating more moderates is unknown. File photo

Sam Brownback, the eyes of Kansas are upon you.

Ecstatic moderate Republicans in the state spent Wednesday counting their legislative gains after stunning victories over incumbent conservatives in more than a dozen contested primaries Tuesday.

The consensus: Although the state Senate will still be in conservative hands, in the House — barring November upsets — moderates and Democrats should be able to assemble a thin majority coalition next year.

But a moderate majority in one chamber may not be enough to immediately change the state’s direction. Instead, many in both parties said, quick progress on a long list of challenges — school funding, tax policy, budget shortfalls — depends on how Brownback interprets the voters’ message Tuesday.

Will the governor seek compromise and acquiesce in a rollback of some of his most controversial legislation? Or will he stick with the aggressive approach of his first six years in office?

“I’m hoping that he does look at the numbers,” said Tom Cox of Shawnee, one of the GOP moderates who ousted a conservative House incumbent Tuesday. “I think the will of the people has shone through in these races. I hope he honors and respects that.”

For his part, Brownback was publicly mum Wednesday. Spokeswoman Eileen Hawley blamed Tuesday’s results on an “anti-incumbency sentiment” and said Brownback would work with the Legislature “to make Kansas the best place in America to raise a family and grow a business.”

Democrats — and privately, some Republicans — said they doubted Brownback would significantly change his policies in the face of the moderate ascendance in Topeka.

“I fully expect that he will just retreat and dig in and wait out the two years,” state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and minority leader, said in reference to the remainder of Brownback’s second term.

Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, agreed. “The vast majority of Kansans are unhappy with how he’s been governing,” Beatty said. “Does he care? So far, it doesn’t seem like he does.”

Brownback remains a significant influence on state policy because of mathematics.

By general consensus, GOP moderates needed to flip at least eight conservative seats in the House on Tuesday to reach even the possibility of a governing coalition with Democrats. Assuming expected results in November, moderates exceeded that target Tuesday by three or four seats.

The state Senate is a bigger reach. By most estimates, moderates likely picked up at least six seats — a major success, but not enough on its own for conservatives to lose control of the 40-seat chamber.

In any case, moderates and Democrats likely won’t have enough votes in either house to easily override Brownback vetoes next year. That means any serious legislation will almost certainly need his help to cross the finish line.

Brownback’s response will be critical because of the major issues confronting the state. While revenue continues to fall below targets, the state’s Supreme Court is expected to decide this winter whether Kansas schools are adequately funded.

Many think the court will order the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on education. Lawmakers may also debate new ways to distribute funding to districts.

“What we need to do,” said Louisburg Republican and House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, “is rewrite a formula that puts focus on the classroom.”

Yet even that task will be complicated. Newly elected lawmakers from Johnson County will face enormous early pressure to increase funding for schools, even as the battle is joined over a potential rollback of some or all of the controversial Brownback tax cuts.

Brownback’s intentions may not be clear for weeks — perhaps until after the November elections. State revenue figures may also determine his policy choices early next year, although some believe even declining state income won’t change Brownback’s views.

“It seems like every time Brownback gets bad news, he doubles down,” said Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University. “You would think there would be some sense of, ‘OK, the voters have spoken and I’ve heard them,’ but he’s never said that. … He may just double down again.”

The remaining conservatives in the Legislature may not go quietly, either.

State Sen. Steve Fitzgerald of Leavenworth said it was “premature” to ask whether Brownback, or the state’s conservatives, need to change their policy approach.

“I think he needs to get out and talk to people more and get in front of groups,” the GOP conservative said, referring to Brownback. “He needs to explain what’s going on, and what the real figures are.”

At the same time, some observers think some conservatives may sense the changing wind in Kansas and move closer to the moderates, enlarging the possible governing coalition.

“What I think this does is help some of the Republicans that have been pulled to the ultra-right maybe have the ability to kind of slip back to where they more naturally were, to the middle,” said Blake Schreck, president of the Lenexa Chamber of Commerce.

No one thinks the state’s many challenges can be solved quickly or easily, even given Tuesday’s results. Some analysts and lobbyists believe it will take a decade or more to fully restructure the state’s budget and spending decisions, a timetable that could expand if Brownback resists changes next year.

Tuesday’s nominees seemed to sense the hard work that still awaits.

“It’s going to be messy,” said Dinah Sykes of Lenexa, who upset incumbent GOP state Sen. Greg Smith on Tuesday. “There’s a big job ahead.”

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw