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After losing governor race, Kansas GOP wants to punish lawmakers who backed independent Pyle

Kansas Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, claimed nearly 20,000 votes in the 2022 governor race.
Noah Taborda
Kansas Reflector
Kansas Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, claimed nearly 20,000 votes in the 2022 governor race.

Following Derek Schmidt's narrow loss to Gov. Laura Kelly, the Kansas GOP will flex its organizational muscle by invoking provisions of the party’s “loyalty clause” to oust from party committees any Republican lawmakers who signed a candidate petition for independent Dennis Pyle.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Dennis Pyle’s post-election critique of why Republican Derek Schmidt lost to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly did nothing to soothe Kansas Republican Party leaders frustrated by Pyle’s insurgent conservative campaign.

Kelly prevailed with 490,208 or 49% of the vote to Schmidt’s 470,243 or 47%. Pyle claimed 19,963 and Libertarian Seth Cordell took 10,854. Schmidt, the state’s three-term attorney general, received 90,000 fewer votes for governor than the average of five Kansas Republicans who won statewide office Nov. 8.

“Derek Schmidt didn’t perform,” said Pyle, a state senator from Hiawatha. “As much as Kansas desperately needed a conservative governor, the Republican Party gave us a candidate that could not and did not win. All said, Schmidt got the anti-Kelly vote. Period. The left-wing endorsements for Kelly gave her the win.”

He was referring to Republican support for Kelly by former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, former Govs. Mike Hayden and Bill Graves, and former Kansas Senate President Steve Morris. Schmidt’s campaign painted crossover endorsements as inconsequential, while touting backing of Schmidt by former President Donald Trump and potential presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor.

State Sen. Mark Steffen and state Rep. Tatum Lee, both Republicans, did their part to further irritate Kansas GOP leadership by insisting the 19,963 votes received by Pyle didn’t cost Schmidt the race. Indeed, the latest unofficial results from the secretary of state’s office showed Kelly earned 19,965 votes more than Schmidt. If Pyle’s votes could somehow be erased, Kelly would have won a second term as governor of Kansas by a mere two votes.

Steffen said the gubernatorial race was lost to Kelly due to “rudderless leadership at the top of the Kansas Republican Party.”

“Throw in a weak candidate and a couple of former Republican governors, who are not Republicans, and here is four more years of insidious undermining of our Kansas way of life,” Steffen said.

Lee, who asserted the Republican Party was a cesspool of “establishment, uniparty elitism,” said the governor’s race in Kansas wasn’t about Pyle. She said it was about Schmidt being “slammed down our throats as a conservative when we all knew he wasn’t.”

Loyalty committee hammer

On Monday in Johnson County, the Kansas GOP will flex its organizational muscle by invoking provisions of the party’s “loyalty clause” to oust from party committees the Republicans who signed the petition relied upon by Pyle to qualify for the November ballot. Pyle has served in the Legislature as a Republican, but severed his GOP registration to run as an independent.

Mike Kuckelman, chairman of the Kansas GOP, said in letters to alleged loyalty offenders that a signature on Pyle’s petition was compelling evidence of support for Pyle’s candidacy and a betrayal of Schmidt. The party can punish party officials for “any documented public action” in the form of donations, contributions or endorsements of a candidate other than the Republican nominee, Kuckelman said.

“Your signature on the Pyle petition wrongfully provided direct support of a candidate other than the Republican nominee,” Kuckelman said.

He said the state party’s loyalty committee voted unanimously Nov. 9 to strip offenders of membership on any party committee and to revoke their capacity to take part in county reorganization meetings. Kuckelman didn’t respond to a request for comment about the purge.

Olathe resident Brian Herr, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the Kansas House in August, said he signed Pyle’s petition, received a sanction letter from Kuckelman and appealed the loyalty committee’s decision to punish him.

In his defense, Herr said he wasn’t an elected official, district committee member, county central committee member or precinct committeeman at the time he signed Pyle’s petition during the summer.

“The petition I signed … does not state that I intended on voting for Dennis Pyle, but only that I nominate him as a candidate, which is not the same as an endorsement,” Herr said in his appeal letter. “I, in fact, voted for Derek Schmidt and (Schmidt runningmate) Katie Sawyer.”

Herr said he didn’t embrace Pyle’s campaign through personal social media accounts, conversations or public social media venues. He did post an item to Facebook debunking a mailer that attacked Schmidt.

The last word

In a political career of more than 20 years, Schmidt won reelection to the Kansas Senate twice without opposition and won election as attorney general with margins ranging from 109,000 votes in 2010, to 280,000 votes in 2014 and 190,000 votes in 2018.

He had anticipated a tough 2022 primary for the Republican nomination for governor, but former Gov. Jeff Colyer withdrew from the race due to health issues.

That was before Kansas voters in August surprisingly rejected a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that could have opened the path to a ban on abortion. It was before supporters of Kelly invested millions of dollars on advertising linking Schmidt to former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who left office in 2018 as one of the state’s most unpopular chief executives.

And, it was before Pyle submitted 8,800 petition signatures of registered voters, more than the required 5,000, to land on the November ballot.

In a concession statement, Schmidt didn’t mention abortion, Brownback or Pyle.

“If there is any disappointment beyond the immediate sting,” Schmidt said, “it is having witnessed up close the concerning tendency of modern political discourse to veer away from discussing the great public issues we must solve together.”

He said Kansas needed to focus on outmigration of young and old Kansans, effective management of water resources, high state and local taxes and archaic methods of delivering public services. He urged Kansas politicians to improve the public education system and resolve a structural imbalance in the state budget that haf been masked over.

“Over the course of this campaign, I had the great pleasure to talk with thousands of my fellow Kansans one-on-one and face-to-face,” he said. “I know their desire to solve these and other difficult problems is sincere and lasting — and I will continue to be among those who want to make our state better, despite the gravitational pull of modern politics and mass communication having largely obscured so much of that discussion.”

This story was originally published on the Kansas Reflector.

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.
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