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Kansas City Area Democrats Look To Break Republicans' Veto-Proof Grip On The Kansas Legislature

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Carlos Moreno
A banner directs voters to the Wyandotte County Election Office in July 2020.

Six Senate and eight House competitions in the Kansas City suburbs have the power to shape the Statehouse — and redistricting — in the coming years.

The outcome of Nov. 3’s Kansas legislative races has major implications for how the state handles COVID-19, the budget and redistricting congressional and legislative districts.

To that end, Kansas Democrats are hoping to break the GOP’s supermajority in the Kansas Legislature, while conservative Republicans are trying to bolster their caucus. It’s a likely recipe for more gridlock, no matter who wins.

“There’s not a lot in Topeka these days that isn’t shrouded by political conflict to an extent,” University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller said. “It’s not a place where compromise is thriving these days.”

Miller points out conservatives clobbered moderate Republicans in Johnson County’s August primaries – but in House and Senate districts where Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly polled well in 2018.

Plus, if Democrats pick up one House seat or two Senate seats, that could break the GOP’s veto-proof, two-thirds majority on such critical priorities as redistricting, where they’d likely look to keep maps at status quo, Miller said. Current Senate President Susan Wagle, who won’t be in the Legislature next year, recently made it clear Republicans would like to redraw maps to favor their party.

Here are some of the most noteworthy Statehouse contests to watch in Johnson and Wyandotte counties.

SENATE SEATS

Senate District 5 (Bonner Springs, Edwardsville, western Kansas City to Leavenworth)

Incumbent Republican Kevin Braun was appointed in 2018 to replace Steve Fitzgerald, who resigned to run for Congress. Braun, who lives in the Piper area, is a conservative who served 32 years in the military.

The Democratic challenger is state Rep. Jeff Pittman of Leavenworth, who has a master’s degree in engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a business consultant. He has represented Kansas House District 41 since 2017.

Senate District 7 (Prairie Village, Mission, Roeland Park, Fairway, Mission Hills, parts of Leawood and Overland Park)

This seat was held by Barbara Bollier, now running for U.S. Senate.

The Democrat is Ethan Corson, a lawyer and former executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party from 2017-19. The Republican is Laura McConwell, a lawyer and former three-term mayor of Mission (2002-2014).

Senate District 8 (central Overland Park)

Republican Jim Denning has held this seat since 2013 but chose not to run for re-election. This district went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Laura Kelly in 2018, so it leans Democratic.

This year, the Democrat is Cindy Holscher, who won a House seat in 2016 by beating a Republican incumbent and kept it in 2018.

Her opponent is James Todd, a conservative Republican who is an ordained pastor, then became a lawyer. He represented House District 29 from 2013 to 2017.

Senate District 10 (Shawnee, Lake Quivira, and parts of Overland Park, Merriam and Bonner Springs)

This is the most evenly matched Kansas Senate district between Republicans and Democrats.

The Republican incumbent is Mike Thompson of Shawnee, who was appointed in 2020 to replace Mary Pilcher-Cook when she resigned. Thompson, a longtime meteorologist on Fox4 in Kansas City, defeated moderate Republican Tom Cox in the primary.

The Democrat is Lindsey Constance, a teacher and member of the Shawnee City Council since 2018.

Senate District 11 (Leawood, parts of eastern Overland Park)

This is a rematch between the candidates, only this time it’s for a Senate seat instead of in a House primary.

Conservative Republican Kellie Warren, a lawyer from Leawood and former one-term House member, defeated moderate Republican incumber John Skubal in the August primary.

The Democrat is Joy Koesten , also of Leawood, who has taught communications at the University of Kansas and Washburn University, and previously helped run a financial planning firm with her husband.

Koesten served one term in the House as a moderate Republican, but was defeated by Warren in the 2018 primary. Koesten then switched parties.

Senate District 23 (much of Olathe)

Incumbent Republican Rob Olson was appointed to succeed Karin Brownlee in 2011 and has won every election handily since then. A small businessman, Olson also served in the Kansas House from 2005 to 2011.

But this is another district that Laura Kelly won in 2018, and the Democratic challenger is Wendy Budetti, a substitute teacher, mother of five and Democratic Party activist.

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Carlos Moreno
A voter checks in at the Wyandotte County Election Office during the 2020 primary.

HOUSE SEATS

House District 16 (part of Lenexa and Overland Park)

Democrat Linda Featherston of Overland Park, is running to succeed Holscher. Featherston has owned and operated a piano studio and is active in the Kansas Music Teachers Association.

Republican Rashard Young of Overland Park is one of a handful of Black candidates from Johnson County. He has a career background in financial services and is director of outreach in the Kansas state treasurer’s office.

House District 17 (covering parts of Shawnee and Lenexa)

This district went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and was represented by moderate Republican Tom Cox until he ran unsuccessfully this year for state Senate.

Lenexa Democrat Jo Ella Hoye is a stay-at-home mom who previously was an analyst in the Johnson County manager’s office. She got involved in politics to push for gun laws.

Republican Kristine Sapp is a realtor and small-business owner. She is a conservative who decided to run because she was upset with the state’s handling of COVID-19.

Michael Kerner is the Libertarian candidate; he doesn’t appear to have a website.

House District 20 (part of Leawood and Overland Park)

Jan Kessinger, the moderate Republican incumbent, lost in the August primary to anti-abortion candidate Jane Dirks of Overland Park.

Dirks worked in a variety of roles at Whitefield Academy, a private Christian school, and has been active in the Johnson County Republican Party.

This district leans Democratic, and the Democrat in the race is Mari-Lynn Poskin of Leawood, a small-business owner who has also served a variety of roles in higher education.

House District 26 (part of Olathe)

First-term Republican Adam Thomas, who has a career in restaurant management, is seeking re-election. He was elected in 2018 despite an accusation that he didn’t live in the district. He was charged with election perjury for giving a false address when he declared his candidacy but reached a diversion agreement in 2019 and remained in office.

The Democratic challenger is Mike Shimeall, a longtime educator who served on the La Crosse, Kansas, city council for three years and as mayor for one year. He says he has lived in the district for more than a decade.

House District 37 (covering part of Kansas City)
This is the most controversial race in the area, even getting attention from The New York Times and The Intercept, due to the young Democratic candidate.

In the August primary, dishwasher Aaron Coleman defeated seven-term incumbent Stan Frownfelter by 14 votes. It then surfaced that Coleman, 20, had been accused of abuse, bullying and revenge porn in middle school; admitting to it all.

A recent ex-girlfriend also accused him of abuse; he responded on Twitter but it has since been deleted. And the Kansas City Star recently reported Coleman was charged and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment in 2015 with threatening to shoot a student at a school.

Coleman said he would drop out of the race but then decided to stay in, saying he has matured and will fight for progressive causes.

Frownfelter, a small-business owner, is running as a write-in candidate. Kristina Smith, treasurer for the Wyandotte County Republican Party, is also a write-in candidate.

House District 48 (part of Overland Park)

Incumbent Democrat Jennifer Day was appointed to the seat in May after David Benson resigned. She runs a real-estate business with her husband. Day switched parties in 2016, and is running for the first time in a district that went narrowly for Donald Trump in 2016 but also for Kelly in 2018.

Her Republican opponent is Terry Frederick, a small business owner and CPA who was upset with the state’s handling of COVID-19.

District 49 (part of Olathe)

This district is seen as competitive between Republicans and Democrats, and first-term Republican incumbent Megan Lynn won a relatively close race in 2018.

Lynn’s career experience includes working as the children’s ministry assistant with the Olathe College Church of the Nazarene.

Her Democratic opponent, Katie Dixon, has worked in the oil industry and is now a financial advisor.

District 78 (part of Olathe)

Incumbent Republican Ron Ryckman was first elected in 2012 and has been speaker of the House since 2017. He previously served on the Olathe City Council from 2009-2017. He opposes Medicaid expansion and has expressed frustration about Kansas Supreme Court decisions on public school financing.

His Democratic opponent is Kathy Meyer, a longtime educator who supports Medicaid expansion and robust state funding for public schools.

Lynn Horsley is a freelance writer in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.