Johnson County has become the key legislative battleground over the future of Kansas.
In elections this fall, county voters will play a significant role in deciding the makeup of the new Kansas Legislature and whether Gov. Sam Brownback’s disastrous economic policies can be rolled back.
Voters will choose the winners of more than two dozen House and Senate seats that already are featuring spirited campaigns between Republican and Democratic candidates.
The county’s pivotal role in state politics came into sharp focus in the August primaries. Voters helped seven moderate GOP candidates shock conservative Republicans who had long supported Brownback on his costly income tax cuts and questionable school funding decisions. The incumbents paid the proper price for their wrongheaded decisions.
To be clear, a half-dozen conservative incumbents did hold on to their seats.
However, that was then and this is now.
The Nov. 8 elections in the county are heating up. They feature Democratic candidates trying to take down most of the moderate Republican winners.
Democrats also hope to knock off a few conservative Republican candidates, something almost unthinkable just a year ago.
The general election in Johnson County will center on at least three key issues.
The Trump/Clinton effect
For very good reasons, Republicans are worried that presidential candidate Donald Trump’s unpopularity in Johnson County — which showed up in a recent poll — will keep some GOP voters at home, depressing the potential vote for legislative contests. Democrats, of course, are giddy about that prospect.
But flip the tables, and Democrats recognize that Hillary Clinton is unlikely to woo lots of their voters to the polls, either. If even a small number of the county’s Democratic voters don’t show up, that will depress the likelihood of gaining seats in the Legislature.
Candidates in both parties must focus on stressing the importance of local legislative races. That’s the right tactic because Johnson Countians will have far more influence over who’s going to Topeka than they will about who will be America’s next president.
The governor is in the tank with Kansans right now as poll after poll show people don’t support the direction he has chosen for Kansas. And bad news, such as Friday’s dismal jobs report, continues to attract negative publicity for his policies.
Here’s how that matters.
Moderate Republicans candidates have to convince voters they aren’t going to fall into Brownback’s clutches in Topeka. They succeeded in that endeavor in the primaries, of course, but the general election is a whole other story because these candidates will have an “R” attached to their names for the entire campaign. Infrequent voters — the kind who come out only for presidential races — may make knee-jerk or even misinformed decisions that could punish moderate Republicans at the polls.
For conservative GOP incumbents, they have a choice to make: Defiantly embrace Brownback’s schemes or point out some disagreements with them.
Finally, Brownback’s unpopularity is a godsend for Democrats. Some are pushing the narrative that getting rid of Republicans in Topeka — conservatives and moderates — is the best way to reduce Brownback’s influence with the Legislature. Of course, this line of reasoning has irritated moderates who have fought, without success, to stop the governor’s policies.
But there is a danger in Democrats spreading themselves too thin. It would make more sense for them to focus the most time and money on the races they have the best chances to win — especially in House and Senate districts largely inside the Interstate 435 loop, which contains more liberal voters than conservative areas such as Olathe.
The anti-Brownback cudgel could be most effective inside the loop, whether moderate Republican candidates like it or not.
Some of the groups that have long supported Brownback tried but failed to persuade Johnson County voters in the primary to retain conservative GOP incumbents. It was especially encouraging to see some negative campaigning not work in August.
However, the general election could be far different.
Infrequent voters might be more likely to believe whatever political claims are thrown their way. Democrats and moderate Republicans are especially worried about the effect of campaign ads that could be coming from Kansans for Life, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and groups associated with the Koch brothers.
Back in late May, the storylines about the Kansas elections centered on whether moderate GOP candidates could really pull off the victories needed to give them a real shot at rolling back some of Brownback’s ruinous policies.
Four months later, progress certainly has been made on that front. But that also means the next seven weeks have become even more deserving of close attention. Johnson County voters have the opportunity to study candidates’ positions, issues and voting records.
The eventual goal is to elect the best possible candidates — from both parties — and put them in office in early 2017.