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A Few Races Could Swing Kansas House Control To Center

Rep. Jim Ward is a Wichita Democrat whose party loyalty has rarely been questioned, but even he says his party is likely to pick up only a few House seats in next week's election.

But he said a few Democratic victories coupled with a few more by Republican moderates might be enough to swing the chamber currently controlled by conservative Republicans more toward the middle.

“I think three or four votes would give us a working majority, at least on some of the big stuff,” Ward said.

With down-to-the-wire races for governor and U.S. Senate in Kansas, less attention is being paid to the contests for seats in the 125-member Kansas House. But a few key races could decide whether the House becomes a more predictable counterbalance to a Senate led by conservatives.

There were 33 Democrats in the House this year, a number that dropped to 32 after the session when Hutchinson Rep. Jan Pauls switched parties over disagreements on social issues.

The number of Republicans who are willing to vote with Democrats on contentious legislation is harder to pin down and shifts depending on the topic. But several votes from the 2014 session illustrate that a few more moderate Republicans could have changed the outcome.

When Ward offered an amendment to remove Medicare from a health care compact billlast session, the change failed by a 57-61 vote, with almost 30 Republicans voting with the Democrats.

A high-stakes school finance bill that eliminated state-mandated due process for tenured teachers squeezed through the House 63-57 over the objections of moderate Republicans and Democrats.

Moderate Republicans and Democrats joined with a handful of more conservative Republicans from rural areas to vote down proposed elimination of the state's renewable energy standards, 63-60.

Conservatives blocked consideration of Medicaid expansion in the 2014 session but a change in the balance of power in the House would likely give the issue more traction. The Kansas Hospital Association is working on an expansion proposal that it will push to have considered during the 2015 session, which begins in January.

Two of the House's most conservative members — Rep. Josh Powell of Topeka and Rep. Allan Rothlisberg of Grandview Plaza — lost in the Republican primary, potentially narrowing the gap.

Ward said he thinks Democrats can pick up seats against some of the remaining conservative Republicans in certain districts, but some Democratic incumbents are vulnerable to conservative Republican challenges in others.

That leaves about 10 key races to decide who emerges with what Ward called "that working majority":

  • The 1st District in southeast Kansas, where pharmacist Brian Caswell, a Democrat, faces Republican Rep. Michael Houser.

  • The 3rd District in Pittsburg, where Democratic incumbent Rep. Julie Menghini faces Republican challenger Chuck Smith, a well-known St. Mary's-Colgan High School football coach.

  • The 17th District in Johnson County, where former Lake Quivira mayor Larry Meeker, a Democrat, is challenging Rep. Brett Hildabrand, one of the House's most conservative Republicans.

  • The 40th District in Leavenworth County, where social worker and League of Women Voters volunteer Linda Johnson, a Democrat, faces conservative Republican Rep. John Bradford.

  • The 54th District in south Topeka, where former Rep. Ann Mah faces conservative Republican Rep. Ken Corbet in a rematch of one of 2012's tightest races.

  • The 56th District in Topeka, where Democratic incumbent Virgil Weigel faces Republican Lane Hemsley, executive director of the Kansas Dental Board.

  • The 79th District in and around Winfield, where Democratic incumbent Ed Trimmer faces Republican Larry Alley, a business owner and former school board president.

  • The 102nd District in Hutchinson, where Pauls faces Democrat Brian Davis.

  • Several districts where incumbents are not seeking re-election, leaving an open, contested seat, including the 23rd District, 30th District, 41st District and 52nd District.

If enough of these races go their way, moderate Republicans and Democrats could wield sufficient power to influence the legislative agenda. But members of both groups say it’s unlikely that they would attempt to deny conservative Republican Speaker Ray Merrick a second term as speaker, assuming he wins re-election.

A Republican who needs a large block of Democratic votes to win the job would face practical problems governing his or her caucus, Ward said.

Rep. Tom Moxley, a moderate Republican from Council Grove, concurred.

“I’ve heard talk, but I don’t think that's a realistic expectation,” Moxley said.

Moxley said that though their political philosophies differ, he respects Merrick's honesty.

Bill Otto, a former Republican House member from Coffey County seeking to return as an independent, is ready to challenge convention if he prevails in a three-way race against incumbent Republican Peggy Mast and Democrat Teresa Briggs.

“I wouldn’t be above running against the speaker as an independent," said Otto, a former teacher.

Otto, with his “No bull zone” slogan, was considered one of the chamber’s more colorful personalities from 2005 to 2012. He lost to Mast, currently the speaker pro-tem, when redistricting forced the two incumbents to square off in a Republican primary.

If elected as an independent, Otto said he wouldn’t be beholden to either party. That would allow him to bridge the partisan gap as speaker by naming both Republicans and Democrats to lead committees.

“I really think it's time we do something like look at the parties and pick the best person,” Otto said.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR 89.3 and the Kansas News Service based in Topeka.
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