Last week’s Supreme Court decision in NFIB v. Sebelius may have provided the frame in which 2012 Kansas campaigns will be conducted, but the week before an even more pivotal decision came down: the districts those campaigns will be conducted in were redrawn by a federal district court instead of the Kansas legislature. The legislature dithered until admitting they could not satisfy their constitutional duty, outsourcing the decision to a federal court. Some important lessons can be learned from what will be Kansas’ political geography for the next decade.
The court map changed Kansas’ state legislative borders drastically. The significant changes to all House and Senate districts suggest the court slapped the legislature’s wrists for failing to complete their redistricting duty. The new districts seemed to be drawn to especially hurt anyone who tried to redraw boundaries for their benefit. Nearly a quarter of the Kansas Senate will be freshmen because of the maps, as will more than a third of the House.
For years, disgruntled voters have talked a good game about ‘throwing the bums out’. Dissatisfaction with politics has led some to claim established politicians should be forcibly ejected from office. Whether the sentiment emerges through term limits or recalls, people love the idea of forcing change on legislatures. But incumbents win re-election at a rate of 90% at times of drastic changes, so the public’s desire to throw the bums out is forgotten in voting booths. The new maps promise change, but don’t expect new brooms to sweep Topeka clean in 2012.
State Republicans, already stocked with a surplus of candidates planning for a Brownback-friendly takeover of the Senate, had the advantage of an established farm team. Kansas Democrats will fail to contest nine Senate and 33 House seats, while Republicans will pass on just five House districts and none in the Senate. Republicans have contested primaries in almost three-quarters of Senate districts and nearly half of House seats. The deep GOP bench means both chambers will continue to be dominated by Republicans, and may shift the Senate further right.
To ensure the filing deadline queue outside Secretary of State Kobach’s office was longer than midnight showings of The Hunger Games, the state GOP had a fraught weekend. Both state parties established recruitment war rooms to make sure they had full candidate slates.
The incumbents have massive advantages towards re-election, too. Candidates had to file, calculate their new districts’ partisanship, and fundraise immediately. Primary campaigns will last less than two months, sounding wonderful to critics of long American contests, but short campaigns favor incumbents with experience campaigning. Inexperienced campaigners without connections to existing political power bases will struggle to build a campaign capable of communicating their message in a short time. The promise of a significant infusion of new blood into the legislature is seriously threatened by a short campaign season that favors established candidates with name recognition, experience campaigning, and a fundraising base.
Page 2 of 2 - We will also get an intense campaign season because of its brevity. Incumbents barred from fundraising during the legislative session have gone from a thousand dollars in their campaign accounts to a hundred thousand in a matter of days. A rush to verify voter databases followed as candidates struggled to know which voters they must reach out to and which ones are now in other districts. Advantage: incumbents. In the end, voters respond to names they recognize and well-crafted campaign messages. Change is rare in legislatures, and this year looks to be no different. Voters in Kansas may think they’ve been handed the change they’ve dreamed of, but while the faces may change the game will likely stay the same.