Just days before Wichitans choose her successor, let’s take a few moments to reflect on the fact that Kansas will never see another Susan Wagle.
The outgoing Senate president is an epic public figure, Shakespearian in her plots and tragedies: the cancer survivor who killed Medicaid expansion; the aspiring United States senator forced to leave the contest to lesser men after her daughter died, also of cancer; a dramatic foil for a pragmatic governor.
No one can fill her shoes, but two women want her seat.
The Republican is Rep. Renee Erickson, who has just finished her first term in the Kansas House.
Erickson’s campaign materials suggest she might have been thinking about Wagle’s long shadow, because she promises “new ideas” and “a different voice” who will “work with both parties.”
Erickson did not respond to my multiple requests for an interview (I’m not the only one Republicans have been avoiding this cycle). But her comments in a mid-October interview with conservative radio host John Whitmer did not sound particularly new or different.
She boasted about her conceal carry license and the two laughed when she said she likes to kid Rep. Blake Carpenter (a Republican from Derby) that she’s “going to give him a run for his money as being known as the 2nd Amendment legislator.”
When Whitmer asked how Erickson thought Gov. Laura Kelly had handled “the China coronavirus pandemic,” Erickson echoed Wagle:
“Big businesses were winners during this pandemic and we’ve lost those small businesses. That’s just unacceptable to me that you can go to a liquor store, and get an abortion, but we couldn’t go to work, church or school,” she said.
“We’re not going to prevent people from getting COVID,” she said, but having succeeded at not overwhelming hospitals, “we need to get back to trusting people, being smart and re-opening our economy.” (This was Oct. 18; much of rural Kansas would soon be overwhelmed. Also, the state has for the most part been open, in Phase 3 of the governor’s re-opening plan, since June.)
Erickson’s campaign materials also brand her Democratic opponent, Melissa Gregory, as a “political insider.”
Gregory’s political career started in an office position for U.S. Rep. Dan Glickman, where she advanced to his executive team, following him to Washington after Glickman was named secretary of agriculture in the mid-1990s. She returned to Wichita and worked for Kathleen Sebelius when Sebelius was the state insurance commissioner. After Sebelius was elected governor, she served as director of appointments, a position Gov. Mark Parkinson asked her to keep after Sebelius went to Washington to lead Health and Human Services.
“I’ve had an interesting career,” Gregory told me. “I feel like I was able to accomplish a lot.”
What motivated her to run, she said, was frustration with “the way the Legislature conducted business — not holding hearings and having people come in and give testimony, not a lot of public participation in what affects a lot of people’s lives.”
Those frustrations are focused on the Legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid, especially now during the pandemic. But Gregory was also distressed at lawmakers’ support for health insurance plans that don’t have to cover people with pre-existing conditions.
“We all know that all of these issues are interconnected,” Gregory said.
Kids can’t do well in school unless they’re healthy. They can’t stay in school if their parents don’t have stable housing. In urban areas, affordable housing might not be accessible without public transportation.
“Those are not extreme issues,” Gregory said. “These are common sense, being-a-good-citizen kinds of issues.”
Gregory expects a close race against Erickson.
The last two times Wagle ran for re-election, in 2012 and 2016, she creamed the Democrat by 60-ish-to-40-ish margins. But Gregory said those candidates weren’t as well known, and pointed out that Laura Kelly carried the district by 14% in her 2018 run for governor.
“The electorate down here is in a more fluid situation than it’s been in the past — clearly people are in a change mode,” she said, noting that the last decade has brought new commercial development and new housing.
“Susan Wagle has held this seat for nearly 20 years, and she is larger than life,” Gregory said, “but while the geography of the district may have stayed the same, the people who are living there have not.”
Despite Erickson and Whitmer asserting that Gregory was in lockstep with “every left-wing liberal in Kansas,” Gregory said her role models Glickman and Sebelius had taught her to work for bipartisan solutions.
“I have plenty of Republican neighbors,” she said, “and a lot of them have my yard signs.”
Signs suggesting a cliffhanger, now, closing out a chapter on a classic Kansas character.