As GOP cements supermajority in Legislature, Democrats realize ‘they can just really walk over us’

Republican power clears path for anti-abortion amendment, shrivels prospects for Medicaid expansion

House Republicans, led by Speaker Ron Ryckman, gained three seats on election night, maintaining their supermajority hold. Republicans retained 29 seats in the 40-member Senate. (Sept. 11, 2020, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Republicans retained a supermajority in both the Kansas House and Senate on Tuesday, reaffirming their control over Kansas policy and leaving Gov. Laura Kelly and Democratic legislators limited options with which to counter.

The results from the 2020 general election, albeit unofficial as mail-in ballots and provisional ballots continue to be counted, indicate Republicans gained three seats in the House and maintained their balance of power in the Senate. If results hold, Republicans will be able to override Kelly’s veto power with a party-line vote.

The GOP advantage will be 87 to 38 in the House, and 29 to 11 in the Senate.

While the election results preserve the status quo — Republicans have held a supermajority in the Kansas House for a decade and in the Senate for even longer — it does have a compounding effect on what little political capital Kelly had to begin with, said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.

“Even when she came in, I don’t think that she had a lot of capital that Republicans in the Legislature were willing to recognize,” Miller said. “I think in this case that gets more difficult. Whatever moderate Republicans you have left, particularly in the House, will be very critical.”

Republicans may try to capitalize on their power next session to resurrect and place before voters an anti-abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution, block the annual push for Medicaid expansion and limit the scope of Kelly’s efforts to enact COVID-19 legislation.

Miller said the 2020 election likely will lead to a more conflictual environment in Topeka when legislators return in January.

“You’re going to have Republicans, especially conservative Republicans, in a stronger position and wanting to exercise that over a Democratic governor,” Miller said. “It’s not going to be a place where people are going to get along very much.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican who narrowly won re-election Tuesday, said results spoke resoundingly to the will of Kansans.

“Kansans continue to value personal responsibility, law and order, and neighbors helping neighbors through a hand up over handouts. That shone through across the board,” Ryckman said. “We have a lot of work ahead to get our schools and our economy safely back to normal. With new ideas at the table and the continuity of our veteran legislators, I know we can do that.”

Old legislation may resurface, as well, said Rep. Jim Gartner, the House minority whip who represents Topeka. He said an anti-abortion amendment GOP legislators failed to get through the 125-member House during the 2020 session will likely be back in play in 2021.

“I think they’ll move forward with that amendment,” Gartner said. “Again, there is nothing we can do with it unless we pick up three or four or whatever we need to get the 42 votes to sustain the veto.”

The amendment would overturn a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision declaring a right to bodily autonomy under the state’s Bill of Rights extends to a mother’s decision to terminate a pregnancy.

Gartner said he fears Republican legislators will use their supermajority to push through legislation without consideration for the minority party.

“Very seldom are there any compromises,” Gartner said. “They know that they can just really walk over us Democrats, and my guess is that is what is going to happen. It is not going to be a very fruitful session from a Democratic standpoint.”

Sen. Pat Pettey, the Senate minority whip from Kansas City, said the expansion of Medicaid health coverage to low-income families in Kansas is likely off the table. She said an unchecked majority party could be dangerous.

“When we don’t have a balanced government, then there’s often less respect for the minority opinion, and we often end up with legislation that, over time, can have very devastating effects,” Pettey said.

As for COVID-19, neither Democratic legislator was confident much would be done in terms of a mask mandate, especially next session. Kelly has actively pursued a statewide mask order and suggested a special session could still be called this year.

Last week, Kelly said she would not pursue a statewide mask mandate under the condition that legislative leaders assist her in convincing counties to enact their own form of a mandate. She said aid from Republican legislators would be essential and urged swift action.

With the supermajority secured, it remains to be seen if GOP leaders will cooperate with a Democratic governor. Kelly, who represented Topeka in the Senate for 14 years before winning the governor’s race two years ago, said she will continue to try and work with Republicans.

“From the day I walked onto the Senate floor, I realized that the only way I was going to get anything done and be productive as a legislator was to go across the aisle and form relationships, work with people to pass good policy,” Kelly said. “I will continue to operate in exactly the same way.”