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The Losing May Not Be Over For Conservatives In Kansas Legislative Elections

Kansas Legislature
Well over a dozen Kansas Legislative incumbents have competitive races in the fall including (from left to right) Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, Rep. Amanda Grosserode, and Rep. Ron Highland.

Primary election night was brutal for conservative Republicans in the Kansas Legislature. 

Six Republican members of the Senate lost their primaries. The more moderate candidates won two additional seats left open by conservatives who decided not to run for reelection.

Eight Republican House members were ousted in the primaries. The Kansas Chamber, which has been known to back lawmakers who align with Gov. Brownback on tax policy, had endorsed all of those defeated incumbents. Eight others the Chamber endorsed in 13 open House races also lost.

A KCUR analysis shows there are still plenty of races where Democrats will be competitive in the fall and that means the possibility of more conservatives going down to defeat.

“I don’t see any way conservatives can continue with a working majority in the Kansas House starting in 2017,” says Republican Rep. John Rubin, a conservative from Shawnee who retired this last legislative session.

While Rubin says he's not sure about the complexion of the 2017 Senate right now, the KCUR analysis shows at least 10 Senate seats and at least 20 House seats are truly up for grabs.

How did we decide which races are competitive? They met one or more of these criteria:

  • The candidate from the challenging party (almost exclusively Democrats running in Republican-held districts) has at least $10,000 cash on hand from the close of the last reporting period that ran from Jan. 1-July 21. Having that much in the bank means there's enough money to print yard signs, palm cards and mail out a postcard. 
  • None of the candidates has $10,000, but the challenging party's candidate has more money.
  • It is a Republican-held district where Democrat Paul Davis won in the 2014 race for governor. Where Davis did well, a Republican is vulnerable. (A Democrat-held district where Gov. Sam Brownback won would also be considered competitive). 
  • It is a district where Gov. Sam Brownback had a small margin of victory. If he won by 50 percent or less, a Democrat has a chance.

University of Kansas political science Professor Patrick Miller says there's no doubt conservatives will lose more ground in the Legislature after Nov. 8.
“If the public is going to send a message of rejection against the governor and his policies, that’s really a two-step process. Last week (the primaries) for moderate Republicans, November for Democrats," Miller says. 

The question, of course, is how many Democrats will win.

Two Senate races to watch 

There are a couple of Senate races in northeast Kansas to keep an eye on that if Republicans lose might be the start of a long election night for conservatives.

One is the Senate District 10 seat held by Mary Pilcher-Cook from Shawnee. Pilcher-Cook is well known, elected to three terms in the House before winning her Senate seat in 2008 and she had $55,684 in the bank in the last report. But Brownback won the district with only 49 percent of the vote two years ago. While her challenger, Vicki Hiatt, barely makes the money threshold (she had $10,653 in the bank) observers believe she's had an active campaign in a swing district that could go blue. Hiatt is a retired teacher in a year it appears voters are exceptionally interested in education.

The other Senate bellwether is District 5 in Leavenworth County where incumbent Republican Steve Fitzgerald is facing tough general election opposition from Democrat Bill Hutton, a lawyer and local municipal judge.

Fitzgerald swept into office with a lot of other conservatives four years ago by beating Democrat Kelly Kultala by just 763 votes out of nearly 25,000 cast. Davis won the district two years ago with 49 percent of the vote, so it's clearly swing. While Fitzgerald has raised a lot of money ($55,577 cash on hand), Hutton is keeping pace ($41,017 cash on hand).

Two House races to watch 

In Lenexa, Amanda Grosserode, is the two-term incumbent representing House District 16. She first starting turning heads in 2009 when she organized a protest against the federal stimulus program at the office of then Democratic Congressman Dennis Moore. 

It's still a swing district, where Davis won 50.5 percent of the vote in 2014 to Brownback's 47 percent. Now Grosserode, tea party organizer and homeschooler, is up against a PTA mom and Sprint Yellow pages executive -- Cindy Holscher. 

Holscher has the endorsement of Stand UP Blue Valley, the Johnson County pro-public schools group that downed several conservatives in the primaries. And Holscher (with $25,319) was way ahead of Grosserode (with $15,437) in cash on hand at the end of July. 

Meanwhile, if there’s a proving ground for how well organized Democrats are, it could be House District 51, which covers a slice of rural Kansas between Topeka and Manhattan.

At first glance, the district appears pretty solidly red. Davis only got 36 percent of the vote here in the 2014. But at the same time, Brownback didn’t hit the 50 percent threshold.

The incumbent, Rep. Ron Highland, chairman of the House Education Committee, has been in the Brownback camp. The Democratic challenger, Adrienne Olejnik, is a Rossville city council member. She announced in October and has been actively campaigning ever since. And she’s raised more money than Highland ($14,818 cash on hand to his $11,555).

Six districts turned moderate could go blue

While moderates did score huge victories in the primaries, several have more to overcome in the general. The KCUR analysis shows three Senate seats and three House seats already picked up by moderates are still competitive based on how much money the candidates have and votes for governor in 2014.

One to watch is Senate District 21 in Overland Park where Dinah Sykes faces Democrat Logan Heley. Sykes handily beat incumbent Sen. Greg Smith. But Heley with $44,012 had raised nearly twice as much money as Sykes ($26,122) in a district Brownback lost two years ago. 

The X Factors

There are other factors, of course.

Is a candidate going door-to-door? Appearing at events in the district? That can make up for less money.

The Democratic party hasn't done too well in the last couple of elections. Though they've done better fielding candidates this time, with a Democrat running in all 40 Senate districts, many are placeholders without serious campaigns. 

Will Brownback's approval rating continue to hover below 20 percent and will that be a drag on conservatives running for reelection? The governor insists the ousting of so many conservatives during the primary was not a repudiation of his policies.

Rubin says that can't be true. “I think you’d have to be, frankly, in a state of denial, to not recognize that the governor’s policies, again those that I agree with and those that I don’t, but the governor’s policies were front and center in many of those races,” he says. 

And then there's the Donald Trump factor. Nobody knows what having him at the top of the ticket will mean. Will Republicans, especially in Johnson County, stay home? Will it energize Democrats? Will it galvanize some who haven't voted in recent elections?

“If you have a race that is decided by a couple of percentage points where literally, probably, everything that happens matters because the race is so close, then Trump could have an effect,” Miller says.

Sam Zeffis co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend and Sam Zeffcovers education for KCUR, which is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas. Follow Sam on Twitter @SamZeff.

Kansas Elections Editor Amy Jeffries contributed to this report. Find her on Twitter @amyoverhere

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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