Kansas Legislative Races Are Top Priority

INSIGHT KANSAS: Making state legislative races count 
by Burdett Loomis

About 18 months ago, I wrote that the 2014 election for governor was “the most important election in your lifetime.” That declaration stands.

We knew in November 2014 that the Kansas economy was headed off the cliff, but we could not appreciate how far down we would fall. Voters actually did understand, according to exit polls, that the Governor Brownback’s income tax policies were failing.

If the high-dollar battle (roughly $17 million) between Senator Roberts and challenger Orman had not changed the focus to Obama from Brownback, it’s likely that the governor would have lost. Instead, he narrowly won four more years to continue of the so-called Kansas experiment.

But Governor Brownback is both term-limited and not on the ballot in 2016. So Democrats and centrist, sensible Republicans simply must focus on state legislative races this year. Period.

Forget Bernie, forget Hillary, forget whoever wants to challenge Senator Jerry Moran. Don’t give a cent to national campaigns. Not a cent. Kansas needs to return to its largely successful moderate-conservative government model of the past fifty years. We need to start electing responsible, non-ideological state legislators who will find ways to reverse the Brownback Administration’s truly disastrous policies.

So – how to do that? Honestly, it’s no mystery. Recruit good candidates. Provide them with money, the “mother’s milk” of politics. Encourage them to campaign with unbounded energy, starting now and not relenting until November 8. Work hard on their behalf, including extensive communications with your friends and acquaintances. 

We know this works because it always has. In Kansas, we know it works because for more than 20 years far-right Republicans have followed this formula. If the 2014 election demonstrated anything for Democrats and moderate Republicans, it was that being “right” on the issues, and especially income taxes, did not guarantee victory. Money mattered a lot, but so did the energy and hard work that have supported far-right politics in Kansas for the past two decades.

Change, however, is in the wind. Continually declining Kansas revenues, growing numbers of cutbacks, and the sub-basement approval ratings of Governor Brownback have greatly increased the incentives to challenge incumbents. Even in mid-April, seven weeks before the June 1 filing deadline, we’re seeing a lot of potentially strong candidates step up.

Although there are the usual former incumbents, such as Democrat Cindy Neighbor in Johnson County, and the young guns, like Lenexa Democrat Logan Heley, the most interesting set of candidates come from the category of “local notables.”

Historically in citizen-legislature states like Kansas, well-known community figures would spend a few years in the legislature, in effect taking their turn to serve the state. Over the past few decades, such selfless and costly service has waned. But as Baby Boomers retire and enjoy good health, more are running for state and local office – offering public service at the end of their working careers – a trend highlighted recently in The New York Times.

This year, for example, former Hutchinson CCC president Ed Berger, a Republican, and Democratic Wichita school board member Lynn Rogers are challenging sitting senators, as is veteran Overland Park city commissioner John Skubal, another Republican. These candidates face difficult races against incumbent far-right Republicans, but given the turmoil at the top of the GOP ticket and Sam Brownback’s unpopularity, it’s a welcome sign that these well-qualified individuals are getting into the game.

If 2014 was the most important election in memory, 2016 isn’t far behind. State legislative races are scarcely sexy, but they represent the essential first step in changing the capitol’s cast of characters and returning responsible rule to Topeka.

Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.