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Politics, Elections and Government

In Kansas, Moderate Republicans Could Face Tight Statehouse Races

Elle Moxley

Most of the attention this election season has focused on the big Kansas state races — the governor’s seat and U.S. Senate. The latest polls put Democratic and independent candidates within striking distance of Republican incumbents, something that’s almost unheard of in this deep-red state.

In some parts of Kansas, Democrats are hoping to capitalize on discontent with incumbents at the top of the ticket and pick up a few more statehouse seats. Which brings us to the moderate District 25 in northeast Johnson County.

“Polarization, that hyper-partisanship that we see causing gridlock in Washington and gridlock in the statehouse and creating that antagonism – that is exactly what is wrong with politics today,” says Republican Rep. Melissa Rooker, the incumbent in District 25.

Rooker is relatively new to politics. It started back when her kids were in school and she joined the local parent teacher association. When Kansas lawmakers proposed deep, mid-year cuts in 2009, she traveled to Topeka with other parents to advocate for lessening the cuts to local schools. And when the budget came back, Rooker says it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

“The six PTA moms that were sitting around the conference table with the House Appropriations Chair actually had made a difference,” she says

When redistricting bumped the incumbent – another moderate Republican – out of District 25, Rooker decided to jump into the race. She won the seat by about 200 votes in 2012. And though Rooker describes herself as a fiscal conservative in favor of small government, she’s not the kind of deep-red Republican that have brought Kansas politics into the national spotlight.

“I learned that you can’t come up here with the attitude that it’s my way or the highway,” says Rooker.

Democrats campaigning against Republican statehouse

Jennifer Robinson is the Democrat running against Rooker in District 25.

“We don’t have the luxury of saying my way or the highway," says Robinson. "That’s not how Democrats operate in Kansas.”

Sound familiar? Robinson says she doesn't have a problem with Rooker, but she doesn't like the direction Kansas is headed.

Credit Elle Moxley / KCUR
Democratic candidate Jennifer Robinson, of Westwood, Kan., meets with volunteers in her kitchen, which doubles as her campaign office.

“I’m on a mission to educate people about what is happening in Kansas politics right now,” says Robinson. “I want to be part of a shift of bringing people back to the middle.” 

Robinson’s talking about the big Republican races that have all eyes on Kansas. Drive up State Line Road on the district’s eastern edge and you’ll see yards with “Jennifer for Kansas” signs right next to neighbors who support U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and incumbent Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. In Robinson’s own yard, volunteers pass a sign supporting Brownback's Democratic challenger, Paul Davis, as they arrive to help her canvas the neighborhood.

Robinson has two school-age daughters and says she’s worried that recent cuts to education funding will mean fewer opportunities for them.

“Often people chose to move to Johnson County for the high quality of education. We know that is an economic driver for this part of the state. We know that keeps our property values higher,” she says.

Robinson’s quick to point out that District 25 shares a border with Kansas City, Mo., where the schools have struggled to regain state accreditation – the same comparison Rooker made from her office in Topeka. 

In fact, the two candidates share many talking points, especially when they’re talking about education, the main issue in this state race. They sound more like political allies than opponents.

And that could make discontent at the top of the ticket play out in interesting ways in down ballot races, says Emporia State political science professor Michael Smith.

“The candidates the Democrats would really like out – the really, really hard conservative candidates – those aren’t the ones that pick up a Democrat opponent because they’re in pretty safe Republican districts,” says Smith. “So unfortunately the Democrats end up picking off seats by running against their sometimes allies, the moderate Republicans.”

It’s the same thing Smith says that’s been happening at the national level for the past two decades. There’s been a purging of moderates in Congress since the ’90s.

So while Democrats could pick up a few seats in Kansas this election cycle, it’s unlikely to be enough to change the political makeup of the statehouse.

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