TOPEKA — Enough dust settled on the Kansas primary election Wednesday to reveal Democrats bemoaning the ouster of moderate Republican lawmakers by conservative challengers and the political universe’s dismay at the one-vote lead by a Wyandotte County Democrat who campaigned by calling on Republicans to drop dead of COVID-19.
Centrist Republicans in the Kansas House and Senate fell in the primary as the Kansas Chamber, Kansans for Life and other political action committees helped carry a majority of their conservative preferences across the finish line.
Unless Democrats surge in November, the Kansas Legislature could trend to the right and opposition to Gov. Laura Kelly’s vision of tax reform and Medicaid expansion could deepen.
“Last night’s election results affirmed Kansans want to thrive in a culture of limited government, opportunity and self-determination, all the while respecting life, neighbors, law and order,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican who didn’t seek re-election. “My focus now is to preserve our veto-proof majority in the Kansas Senate to keep a check on Laura Kelly’s liberal policies, and stabilize and grow our economy in the midst of a historical pandemic.”
She also urged moderate and conservative Republicans to unify behind the GOP’s nominees in November to defeat “the extreme liberal agenda.”
The August primary results suggested statehouse politics could in the future more precisely follow party lines rather than operate with essentially a three-party model of conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Democrats. The House and Senate could become more ideological and accentuate policy gridlock.
A pair of Democratic legislators, both former Republicans, were struck by defeat of centrist GOP lawmakers in the same election cycle that prompted Democrats to nominate women in the state’s four U.S. House districts and the open U.S. Senate seat.
“If you still believe there is room for moderates in the GOP, take another look at the primary results,” said Lenexa Sen. Dinah Sykes, who was among four Republicans who switched allegiances after the 2018 elections.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Democrat who defected along with Sykes, said the state’s moderate Republicans deserved “representation, respect and time to process things.”
Incumbent Republican senators taking a licking in the Tuesday primary included John Skubal, of Overland Park; Bruce Givens, of El Dorado; Dan Goddard, of Parsons; Eric Rucker, of Topeka; Randall Hardy, of Salina; Mary Jo Taylor, of Stafford; and Ed Berger, of Hutchinson. Over in the House, the GOP members falling out of favor were Jan Kessinger, of Overland Park; Jim Karleskint, of Tonganoxie; Diana Dierks, of Salina; Michael Capps, of Wichita; and J.C. Moore, of Clearwater.
The District 15 contest in southeast Kansas between Goddard and former Rep. Virgil Peck remained close with late advance and provisional ballots left to be counted. As of Tuesday night, Peck had 4,927 votes to Goddard’s 4,886 votes.
Overland Park Republican Jane Dirks took 58% of the vote in District 20 of Johnson County in a campaign that amplified Kessinger’s refusal to support a proposed constitutional amendment that would have declared the Kansas Constitution didn’t afford women the right to abortion. Kessinger was among four Republicans who didn’t back the amendment, and it fell short of the two-thirds majority required to put it on statewide ballots.
Leawood Democrat Mari-Lynn Poskin, who will go up against Dirks in the general election, said the campaigns conducted by some Republicans suggested they weren’t interested in the contribution of cross-aisle consensus builders.
“GOP extremists proved they have no appetite for bipartisan, common sense approaches to governing our state,” Poskin said.
Three House primary contests — one Democrat, two Republican — were closer than 50 votes after Tuesday’s count. In the three-person Democratic race to replace Rep. Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat, candidates Mike Griswold and Whitney Moulder were separated by 37 votes from more than 1,000 cast.
In the state’s only four-candidate primary, the Kansas Chamber and KFL-backed candidate Kathy Valentine of Newton was trailing fellow Republican Avery Anderson by 39 votes. Anderson had 1,263, while Valentine was at 1,224. That seat is held by Rep. Tim Hodge, a North Newton Democrat and top target of Republicans.
The other too-early-to-call race had Marysville Republican Jon Ungerer with 2,622 votes to Wheaton Republican Lisa Moser’s 2,610. They’re competing for the GOP nomination for the District 106 seat to be vacated by Rep. Bill Pannbacker, a Washington Republican.
The Coleman thing
The lone incumbent Democrat facing the uncomfortable reality of a potential primary loss is Rep. Stan Frownfelter, who has served the Kansas City, Kan., district since 2007. He was trailing — 768-767 — to challenger Aaron Coleman, a 19-year-old who said on social media Republicans who refuse to wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic deserved to fall ill or die. He later apologized.
Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political science professor, said he doubted most participants in the Frownfelter-Coleman primary, many of whom could be considered “low-information voters,” were familiar with attributes or complexities of these Democratic candidates. It’s much easier for voters to focus on top-of-the-ballot candidates, he said.
Gadfly candidates typically suffer overwhelming defeat at the ballot box but it is possible for someone to gain an advantage by leaning into red-meat rhetoric to invigorate their political base, said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
He also said it was possible Frownfelter underestimated the attraction of a new, younger candidate who bashed the GOP without reservation.
“To have incumbency work for you, you have to take advantage of it,” Miller said.
Kelly, the Democrat elected governor in 2018, said she was intrigued Missouri joined Kansas’ neighboring states of Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma to expand eligibility for Medicaid under the law signed by President Barack Obama a decade ago. Voters in red-state Missouri endorsed Medicaid expansion despite a campaign by Republican state leaders to derail the initiative. The measure was adopted 53% to 46%.
For years, GOP Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer successfully collaborated with Republican-majority legislators to stiff-arm Medicaid reform in Kansas.
“Every single Kansas voter must ask themselves why, year after year, Republican leadership in the Legislature has blocked expansion,” Kelly said. “Their obstruction has left 150,000 Kansans without access to healthcare during a global health crisis. They have forfeited $4 billion Kansas taxpayer dollars. They have rejected 13,000 new jobs that we could bring to Kansas.”
“Republican leadership in the Legislature must stop playing politics with Kansans’ lives and support Medicaid expansion,” she said.
(An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Democratic House candidate Mari-Lynn Poskin included her November opponent, Republican nominee Jane Dirks, among Republicans without an interest in bipartisan collaboration.)