One spring day back a couple of years ago, Rep. Jan Kessinger, a Republican from Overland Park, voted in favor of a bill proclaiming Greenhorn limestone the state rock of Kansas.
He was one of 114 legislators in both the House and Senate to elevate this chalky product of the Flint Hills to its official status.
For approving of limestone, and casting many other votes that apparently live forever in annals kept by some mastermind over at the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Kessinger can legitimately be said to have voted with Democrats 90% of the time.
“So many of the bills are unanimous or near unanimous,” Kessinger said of the Legislature’s routine business.
“These people are the religious right,” he says of the organizations that strafed his district with negative mailers, “but it’s bearing false witness against opponents.”
Kessinger was talking to me about limestone because, before this painful summer officially ends, I wanted to press one more time on a wound from August. He is among the moderate Republican representatives and senators who lost their primary races to more conservative challengers.
Fresh off of their party’s national convention, which was astoundingly negative even by current standards and spotlighted speakers so disingenuous that fact-checkers could barely keep up, I wanted to ask some Republicans who suffered similarly dark and dubious bombardments on behalf of their opponents, particularly from the Kansas Chamber’s Political Action Committee (Exhibit A, Exhibit B) and Americans for Prosperity (Exhibit C), whether they had any advice for voters heading into November’s general election.
“Honestly I’m trying not to think about it all the time, because you have a down time when you’ve lost,” admitted Sen. Mary Jo Taylor, of Stafford.
“Negativity wins,” she said. “It’s how it’s done now.”
It’s not just how; negative campaigning is nothing new. But that doesn’t make a postmortem on this year’s primary any less instructive.
Before she got into politics, Taylor taught high school and then spent 17 years as superintendent of Stafford USD 349, where navigating years of uncertainty about how the state would fund its schools taught her enough about politics that she decided to run for the Legislature.
“Some of the people who had been around for a while said, ‘If you have a good message and if you’re willing to go out and knock doors and be at events and meet people and self-raise some money, that’s how you do it. You just have to work hard. I thought, that makes sense. That’s what I did and I won.”
That was in 2016, which put Taylor among those who rescinded then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts, which he vetoed, which they overrode. With revenues coming back in, they started funding schools again, agreed on a long-range transportation plan and began trying to repair the Department for Children and Families.
In gratitude, the Kansas Chamber’s Political Action Committee compared Taylor to Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden.
Kessinger committed the same offense.
“Did I vote to raise taxes? Yes, I did,” Kessinger said. “Then they’ll say it was a $1.2 billion retroactive tax hike on seniors and the middle class taxpayers, but the fact is we put 330,000 corporations back on tax rolls and the individual income tax rate was lower than what it had been before the Brownback tax experiment.”
“Taxes are always an issue, so I think that was probably something that caused some of the opposition,” said Sen. Ed Berger, of Hutchinson.
But as Berger noted, it was two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate that overrode Brownback’s veto.
“So it was not just moderates. It was people on both sides of the aisle, a variety of political ilk,” Berger said. “But we seemed to be the ones who were the target for it.”
Kessinger had a bull’s eye on his back because of a couple votes on abortion, but Taylor and Berger had not committed similar sins. So abortion dynamics don’t explain all of Kansas voters’ behavior.
Rescinding the Brownback tax cuts helped repair state government, but people have short memories, Taylor said.
“They’re feeling a lot more comfortable with the finances of the state and they don’t stop to think about, well, what if we didn’t have that anymore?” Taylor said. “Or they get sidetracked on other things. And this year you could choose any number of things to get sidetracked on.”
Taylor said people feel like they have no control.
“I live in Stafford County. It’s a rural county,” she said. “The biggest population center is Great Bend, then Pratt. The rest is rural frontier. It’s very Republican and very resilient. Some of them just recently got COVID cases, so they’re really questioning the decisions of the governor, so they’re mad about that. They’re mad about face masks.”
“A lot of people don’t distinguish state government from federal government,” she added. “It’s not unusual for a constituent to ask one of us, ‘Are you going to vote for Trump?’ ”
Absent a rational argument for a functional government, the carpet-bombing on behalf of far-right candidates appears to have one goal: to keep people angry.
“If you choose your candidate based on who can say the nastiest thing about their opponent,” Kessinger said, “you’re picking for the wrong reason.”
Berger’s advice for voters: “They have to get past the hyperbole. Look past emotional arguments and make sure you know exactly what the issues are. You have to be an informed voter. That’s your responsibility. That’s incumbent on all of us.”
What happens, Kansas, when anger wins?