More Kansas Legislative Republicans Jump Ship, Become Democrats
(This story was updated at 3 p.m.)
The latest defections from the Kansas Republican Party — two Johnson County legislators — show politicians in some corners of the state trying to catch up with changes in the voters they need to win over.
In quick succession Wednesday morning, Republican moderates state Sen. Dinah Sykes and state Rep. Stephanie Clayton announced they are changing parties.
They followed the path of moderate Republican state Sen. Barbara Bollier, who declared herself a Democrat earlier this month.
Rep. Joy Koesten of Leawood also recently left the GOP. She lost her bid for a second term to conservative Kellie Warren in the Republican primary.
Those formerly moderate Republicans now calling themselves centrist Democrats say it wasn’t so much that they left the GOP, but more like conservatives yanked their party from them.
The switches come in the wake of a decisive loss of the Republican nominee for governor. Secretary of State Kris Kobach — a fierce conservative who vowed to model the office after Donald Trump’s presidency — represents a wing of the party that increasingly felt like a poor fit for moderates.
“Moderate Republicans have very much been struggling to gain any influence in their own party,” said Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist. “This saves them from that internal squabble and could actually give them more influence.”
The move might be easier with the election of Gov.-elect Laura Kelly. She’s sold herself to the public as a centrist and was seen as a Democrat willing to compromise during her 14 years in the Kansas Senate.
Clayton, for instance, said she hoped the hard right turn of the GOP was going to be a “blip” and would blow over.
“(But) I’ve been in this a long time and things are not blowing over,” she said. “Things have not changed. They appear to be getting worse.”
Both Clayton and Sykes represent politically moderate districts. Sykes said, “I can choose to try and change the Republican Party, or I can choose to represent my district.”
Sykes said she made the jump because of “how deep the right wing has gotten into the Republican Party.”
There were tipping points for both lawmakers in the past week, the two lawmakers said. For Sykes, it was Republicans picking conservative Eric Rucker to replace state Sen. Vicki Schmidt after she was elected state insurance commissioner. Rucker is assistant secretary of state appointed by Kobach. He also worked for conservative Phill Kline when Kline was Kansas attorney general.
Clayton says she decided to quit the GOP when House leadership suggested it might rework a school funding bill passed last year.
“This is just counter-intuitive to what I think is best for my district,” Clayton said.
She also said party leadership appears to, once again, be spoiling for a fight with the state supreme court over school funding.
“I did think that was behind us,” she said. “I want us to move on and build a stable Kansas so that Kansas can really, truly prosper. I’m looking forward I’m not looking back."
Some people in the party have renewed talk about pressing for a constitutional amendment that would free legislators from hitting any particular mark on state aid to local school districts. Lawmakers are working under an order from the Kansas Supreme Court that found their school funding inadequate. Such cases have been pending almost constantly for decades.
Senate President Susan Wagle harshly attacked Bollier for crossing over to the Democratic Party earlier this month. Bollier had endorsed Democrats in the November election. She went easier on Sykes.
“While I am disappointed that Senator Sykes will be joining the party of higher taxes and big government,” Wagle tweeted, “she believes this move will allow her to better represent her district.”
Rep. Diana Dierks, a moderate from Salina, considered a change. But she said in an interview, “I will not do that to my constituents.”
Miller, the KU professor, said the party switching reflects political reality.
All of the lawmakers who moved from red to blue represent districts that look increasingly Democratic. And, Miller said, the lawmakers fall more in step with Democrats on major issues facing the Legislature than the conservatives who run the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate.
For one thing, he said becoming Democrats could land them more powerful committee assignments.
Bollier, a retired physician, could, for instance, regain a seat on the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee. Wagle removed her as vice-chair of the panel last summer for endorsing a Democratic candidate for Congress.
“It could ... also make it easier for her to win re-election,” Miller said.
State Sen. John Doll has also been the subject of party-switch talk. He left the Republican Party last spring to run for lieutenant governor alongside independent Greg Orman.
After the election, Doll said he briefly considered affiliating with one of the major parties but decided to remain an independent.
“I’m a free person and I like that,” said Doll, a former teacher and coach from Garden City who served in the House before defeating former Sen. Larry Powell, a conservative, in the 2016 Republican primary.
Senate leaders stripped Doll of his committee assignments when he left the Republican Party. Something he maintains doesn’t significantly affect his ability to represent his sprawling southwest Kansas district.
Even without committee clout, Doll said his votes and presence in the Senate give him some sway over legislation.
“People are going to have to cut deals,” he said, “so I think I will still have some influence.”
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.
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