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A Lot Still Depends On Who Conservatives Back For Kansas Legislative Leadership

Kansas Legislature, coloring by Kelly Tate
So much depends on how red the Republicans in the Kansas House prove to be.

Next Monday, Dec. 5,  all the lawmakers elected to the Kansas Legislature will meet in Topeka to nominate new leadership for the 2017 session.

Without a doubt, there will be many more Democrats and moderate Republicans in the statehouse this time. Conservative Republicans lost roughly a third of their seats in the just-certified elections. 

But conservatives will still be the single biggest faction in both the House and the Senate, and so a lot depends on who they back for top posts. 

How many moderates?

Moderate Republicans picked up eight or nine seats in the Senate and about a dozen in the House, taking seats that had been occupied by conservative incumbents. 

It’s difficult to come up with a precise count. For one thing, who's in the "moderate" camp depends on the issue. Some who are in favor of increasing education funding, for example, may also be very opposed to abortion, but the new Legislature doesn’t have a voting record yet.

The best proxy to figure out who stands where may be endorsements.

If you’re a Republican who got endorsements from the KNEA and the Kansas Contractors Association – organizations that advocate for public schools and road building – you’re counted as a moderate. If you got endorsements from the Kansas Chamber and Kansans for Life, you’re a small government, anti-abortion conservative. But some lawmakers-elect got a mix of endorsements, and in less competitive districts endorsements weren't necessarily issued across the board. 

Nonetheless, we tallied who got KNEA and KSCA endorsements while their opponents were backed by the Chamber and KFL to get an estimate of how many lawmakers-elect could be expected to vote with moderates at least some of the time. In the 40-member Senate, that number is between 10 and 12 out of the 31 Republicans. In the 125-member House, it's in the range of 29 to 38 out of the 85 Republicans.

That leaves the Democrats: there are now nine in the Senate, and 40 in the House. 

No matter how you slice it, conservative Republicans are still the majority of the majority party in both chambers.

Leadership selection play-by-play

There's been a lot of talk about the idea that moderate Republicans could join forces with Democrats, and maybe even elect leadership as a coalition. 

Except when Kansas lawmakers get together on Monday to make their nominations, moderate Republicans won't be going off to a room with Democrats. They'll be staying in the chamber with conservative Republicans. 

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, took to Twitter the other day to explain the leadership selection process.

While Democrats on Monday will, like Republicans, select their caucus leaders, it's Republicans alone as the majority party that will nominate the top leadership: House Speaker, Speaker Pro Tem, Senate President, and Senate Vice President. Whoever controls those posts, controls the legislative agenda.

Clayton, who’s easy to count as a moderate, plans to cast her secret ballot for Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, for House Speaker. Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, and Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, have also thrown their hats in the ring. They’re both more conservative.

Anyway, to pick up where Clayton left off in her tweets, after the first round is tallied, the person with the fewest votes drops off the ballot, and the lawmakers vote again, until they have their Speaker. That person then makes office assignments, floor assignments, and all-important committee assignments. The whole legislature has to confirm the Speaker in January, but that’s usually just a formality.

If they're not happy with who emerges as the nominee for House Speaker on Dec. 5, lawmakers could reject that pick on the first day of the session. That rejection could come from moderates banding together with Democrats, or it could come from conservatives, or any coalition. 

But Clayton says that "nuclear option" has never been deployed. And it would be hugely disruptive. 

“All of those assignments, all of that structure would be blown out of the water and would cause a delay of the legislative calendar, I would say for at least two weeks if not a month,” Clayton says. “After an election where the voters made it very clear to us that they want stability, I think that nuclear option may make many of them upset because that would cause delay, that would cause chaos.”

Where the coalition-building comes in 

So let’s say moderate Republicans accept a conservative speaker, just to keep the peace. Would their bills ever see the light of day?

“You know, we’ve had that as the case for the last few years, where there was a lot of legislation kept from the floor,” says Susan Concannon, R-Beloit. 

Last year, Concannon herself was booted from the Health and Human Services Committee for supporting a compromise to expand Medicaid that then never made it to a vote. 

It’s a sign of just how much things have changed that Concannon is in the running for caucus chair this year.

That said, there are still plenty of conservative Republicans who will never vote to increase taxes or close the LLC loophole.

“We have to build the coalition to get to 63,” Concannon says. “We would rather work with our Republican colleagues, but if that doesn’t work, then you look wherever you can get to get the votes.”

In other words, to get a simple majority for bills in the House, they’ll look to Democrats.

Democrats haven't always wanted to work with moderate Republicans -- not our tax plan, not our problem. 

“The challenge will be for strong leaders – and we have those in Kansas – to step up and work in a bi-partisan manner,” says Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, the incumbent House Minority Leader.

“To what extent can it be accomplished?,” he asks. 

It’s a good question.

Who the minority leadership is may also be a factor in how and when any coalition comes together. 

Burroughs has competition from Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, who’s more of a firebrand. He wants Democrats to come to the table with more bills of their own.

Elle Moxley is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley. Kansas Elections Editor Amy Jeffries is also based at KCUR. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyoverhere.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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