In half of the Kansas House races, voters won’t have a choice

By: - June 15, 2022 11:45 am
Michael Poppa, executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, appears at a Jan. 24, 2022, news conference at the Statehouse in Topeka to raise concerns with the GOP-led redistricting process. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Michael Poppa, executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, appears at a Jan. 24, 2022, news conference at the Statehouse in Topeka to raise concerns about the GOP-led redistricting process. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — For Michael Poppa, this year has been “a punch in the gut.”

Poppa tries “to engage and educate and empower voters” through his work as the executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, a nonprofit focused on creating a more responsive government.

Democracy, he says, is failing in Kansas.

The latest indicator: 55 of the state’s 125 House seats are already decided because only one candidate filed for the seat before last week’s deadline. Another 10 races only have a primary contest, which means voters won’t have a choice in more than half of the House seats on the November ballot.

Earlier this year, the Mainstream Coalition tried to fight new political maps drawn by the GOP-dominated Legislature to reinforce Republicans’ power, without regard for public input in the redistricting process. That effort was defeated when the Kansas Supreme Court decided in May that the state constitution offers no protections against political and racial gerrymandering.

Near the end of the session, the Legislature replaced the contents of House Bill 2138, which originally dealt with liquor sales, with parts of five election-related bills — four never had a hearing in the House, and one was never voted on by a committee in either chamber — as well as new provisions that had not been introduced in any other bill. The new law expands election-related crimes, requires burdensome administrative actions opposed by election officials and creates a path to purge voters from registration lists if they skip elections.

“Voting rights are under attack from multiple angles — redistricting, trying to place limits on how and when people can vote,” Poppa said. “It makes it increasingly difficult for organizations to educate the general public. To be honest, democracy is under attack. We’ve heard it. But it’s true, especially here in Kansas, where we have one supermajority in the Kansas Legislature that controls everything. And that won’t change until we vote common-sense legislators into office. That can’t happen if there’s only one candidate running.”

The 36 Republicans and 19 Democrats who are running unopposed include some of the most respected lawmakers, as well as some of the most controversial.

The list includes Rep. Kristey Williams, a Republican from Augusta who championed legislation that would have established a parental bill of rights, attempted to redirect funding from public to private schools, and led discussions on critical race theory.

Also running unopposed is Rep. Stephen Owens, the Hesston Republican who backed legislation establishing a uniquely regulated “pawn shop for the rich” in his hometown, despite allegations of fraud and financial questions that surround the project.

Rep. Tory Arnberger-Blew and Rep. Rui Xu are co-chairs of the bipartisan Future Caucus, which is supported by the Millennial Action Project. Both are running unopposed. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The four leaders of the Kansas Future Caucus have no challenger to retain their seats: Rep. Tory Arnberger-Blew, R-Great Bend; Rep. Nick Hoheisel, R-Wichita; Rep. Rui Xu, D-Westwood; and Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa. The caucus is an extension of the D.C.-based Millennial Action Project, which is trying to transform American politics by engaging young leaders who can bridge the partisan divide.

“The filing deadline has passed and for the first time I will be running unopposed,” Hoheisel wrote in a tweet. “Despite this, I will still be out knocking doors and listening to folks in the 97th district. I appreciate the faith they have put in me to continue representing them in Topeka.”

Four members of the House who sponsored legislation declaring a day of prayer, fasting and public humiliation are running unopposed: Rep. Bill Rhiley, R-Wellington, Rep. Randy Garber, R-Sabetha, Rep. Trevor Jacobs, R-Fort Scott, and Rep. Michael Murphy, R-Sylvia.

The 10 races in which only Republicans are running include those of Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican who chairs the foster care committee and faces a primary challenge from Gerald Johnson, and Rep. Tatum Lee, a Ness City Republican and outspoken critic of Republican leadership who faces a primary challenge from Jim Minnix.

Davis Hammet, president of the voting advocacy group Loud Light, attributed the volume of contested races to the newly drawn legislative maps.

“All of these maps at every level were drawn for Republican advantage, and to reduce competition,” Hammet said. “And the issue with reduced competition is then you have candidates not filing. People don’t have a choice, but also there becomes less investment in civic engagement more broadly. So if there’s not a competitive race, then candidates aren’t attempting to reach voters, aren’t attempting to engage new voters, aren’t attempting to get to know their community, aren’t attempting to actually participate in democracy. It becomes an anointed seat instead of something that’s competitive, and there are a lot of effects that ripple out of that.”

Hammet, who focuses on engaging with young adults, said the combination of gerrymandered districts and lack of competitive races reinforces the refrain he frequently hears: “My vote doesn’t matter.” In the past, his strategy has included an emphasis on how close Statehouse races can be, with some even decided by a single vote.

“There are going to be fewer situations where votes actually matter,” Hammet said. “Already a majority of the elections are already decided right now. So what do you tell people if the whole thing is rigged? That’s a very frustrating situation.”

Poppa said he considers voting to be the cornerstone of democracy. The lack of competitive races means a lot of voters won’t be able to cast a ballot for someone who shares their values. The lack of a choice “undermines democracy,” he said.

He has advice for voters who are frustrated by the situation.

“If a candidate does not share your values, if a candidate is not on the right side of your issues, I would say consider running yourself,” Poppa said. “A lot of people get their start at the local level because they decided that, you know, they want to make change. That’s the only way we’re going to make change.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.