Most of the focus so far this election season in Kansas has been on the competitive primaries for gubernatorial and congressional nominations. But races for the state House could prove just as consequential.
Across the state, conservatives are challenging moderate Republicans and Democrats in a coordinated effort to reclaim legislative seats they lost in 2016.
Now, moderates and Democrats who took those seats are under fire for their votes last spring to roll back the tax cuts and replenish state coffers.
Conservatives call the rollback the biggest tax increase in state history and criticize lawmakers for backdating it to the beginning of the 2017 tax year.
“A tax hike in and of itself is one thing, making it retroactive is another,” said Kasha Kelly, a Republican from Arkansas City who lost her House seat to Anita Judd-Jenkins in 2016.
Backed by powerful interest groups such as the Kansas Chamber, the Kansas State Rifle Association and Kansans for Life, conservatives are gunning for more than a dozen moderate-held seats in Tuesday’s primaries.
The political action committee Kelly heads, which is tied to the Legislature’s Truth Caucus, is also involved.
In a recent fundraising letter, Kelly wrote that liberals masquerading as Republicans “infiltrated our ballots” to win election two years ago.
A string of conservative victories, first in the primaries and then in the general, could threaten the narrow governing majority moderate Republicans formed with Democrats after the 2016 elections.
Conservatives are challenging moderate incumbents in 11 House districts Tuesday. Moderates are challenging conservative incumbents in only four.
Also in play are a few districts represented by lawmakers who sometimes side with moderates on key tax and budget votes. So too are nine open seats currently split between conservative and moderate Republicans.
Competition between the rival factions is particularly fierce in the Wichita-area and Johnson County.
In one of those Wichita-area races, Will Carpenter, of El Dorado, is trying to win back the House seat he lost to Mary Martha Good in 2016 by a mere 41 votes.
“If my opponent would have been a center-right conservative and made good votes that represented our county and our values, I would have faded off into the sunset and never came back,” Carpenter said in an interview.
Instead, Carpenter, with help from a direct-mail campaign funded by Americans for Prosperity Kansas, an anti-tax group connected to the Koch brothers, is attacking Good for her vote on the tax cut rollback — a vote that AFP mailers refer to as a “$1.2 billion retroactive tax hike.”
Good has taken to Facebook to warn supporters that whatever they get in the mail from “big money special interest groups” will be an attempt to mislead them.
“Don’t be fooled by it,” Good writes.
In Johnson County, where funding of public schools is a dominant issue, Joy Koesten is facing a strong primary challenge from Kellie Warren.
Warren has gotten support from the Kansas Chamber and Koch Industries, while the Mainstream Coalition and Stand Up Blue Valley, two groups instrumental in electing moderates in 2016, are backing Koesten.
In a side-by-side comparison of their positions on her campaign’s Facebook Page, Warren charges that Koesten voted “90 percent with Democrats” in supporting record state spending, increased property taxes and the expansion of Obamacare.
Responding on Twitter, Koesten, issued a refrain similar to those voiced by Good and other moderates targeted by the conservative clawback effort.
WARNING- the big $$ special interest groups supporting my opponent are going to make a last ditch effort to win my seat!! Be aware that everything you get from them between now & election day is an effort to mislead you & trick you into voting for their candidate. Call BS! #ksleg pic.twitter.com/O6UBg8dxei
— Joy Koesten (@joyforkansas) August 4, 2018
In a video posted to Stand Up Blue Valley’s Facebook page, Pam Robinson, a former member of the Blue Valley School Board, urged voters to return Koesten to the Statehouse.
“We voted out the people who supported Sam Brownback two years ago and we can’t turn back now,” Robinson says. “Kansas is finally getting back on track.”
In a neighboring district, moderate Karen Snyder is challenging GOP incumbent Sean Tarwater. He won an open seat in 2016 with backing from Stand Up Blue Valley. But that endorsement now belongs to Snyder.
“When we have ultra-conservative legislators making decisions related to taxes,” Snyder said, “the schools get the short end of the stick.”
Tarwater is turning the loss of the endorsement into a talking point for conservative voters.
“Is anyone else concerned about the increasing trend of Democrats disguising themselves as Republicans to get elected in Kansas,” he recently wrote on his campaign’s Facebook page. “As I walk my district, and drive through several others, I see very liberal Republican signs in yards of owners who are registered Democrats.”
Illustrating how complicated Kansas politics has become, Tarwater also faces a challenge from Rochelle Bird. She describes herself as “an authentic conservative” and got the Kansas Chamber's nod.
But another PAC claiming to represent “Republican Values” recently attacked Bird in a mailer, referring to her as a California liberal who “will bring left coast politics to Kansas.”
Bird moved to Kansas from California eight years ago.
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.
KMUW-based reporter Brian Grimmett and Kansas News Service editor Amy Jeffries contributed to this report.
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