Most media reports on last week’s primary elections focused on high profile congressional races and concluded that Republican voters had turned to the right. A more careful look at the election results may suggest a different view.
In the 60 days before last week’s primary election a coalition led publicly by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce targeted 10 incumbent Republican state legislators for defeat. Voters rejected this tactic and showed their independence in choosing candidates for the general elections in November.
In June, the Kansas Chamber and its allies determined that no Republican legislator who voted for the temporary sales tax increase in the past legislative session would receive their endorsement in the primary election. Further, this coalition encouraged potential candidates to challenge these incumbents and then targeted 10 Republican incumbents for defeat.
Six of the targeted incumbents were clustered in districts in the eastern half of the state, mostly rural counties stretching from Salina on the west to Iola on the east, Clay Center on the north to Cassoday on the south. Three others were in Johnson County; one in Wichita.
The political arm of the Kansas Chamber, the Kansas Chamber Political Action Committee (PAC), spent nearly $100,000 in the six weeks before the primary election, over half of which was targeted at defeating the ten incumbents. The Chamber PAC made direct contributions to the campaigns of challengers, and later paid for direct mailings into the districts of the targeted incumbents. Various allies of the Chamber campaign made additional campaign contributions to challengers, independently of Chamber PAC’s contributions. The Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity piled on with more direct mailings. Roughly $100,000 in outside funding was channeled into the campaign against the targeted incumbents.
By most any measure the Chamber strategy failed. Nine of the 10 targeted incumbents won their primary election.
Nine other House Republicans who voted for the sales tax and received no Chamber endorsement had no primary opposition. Four additional candidates with Chamber endorsements, two who opposed the sales tax and two in open seats, were defeated.
The strategy of the Chamber and its allies represents the latest chapter in the polarization of the Kansas Republican Party over the past 20 years. This coalition sought to determine who is and who is not a genuine Republican. The litmus test was a single vote, out of over 400 recorded votes in the entire legislative session.
My colleague Joe Aistrup and I characterize this phenomenon as the emergence of “polar alliance” Republicans, that is, an alliance of those who demand governmental intervention on social issues, such as abortion, gay marriage, and the teaching of evolution, and at the same time advocate personal liberty and governmental restraints on economic issues, such as taxing, spending, and regulation. Special interest groups, such as the Chamber in this instance, have exacerbated this trend with litmus tests that have often push elected officials to the extremes on these issues.
Page 2 of 2 - Centrist voters in Kansas have for the most part rejected polar alliance candidates in statewide elections and in doing so have dispatched the names of David Miller, Tim Shallenberger, and Phill Kline to the state’s political graveyard. Similarly, voters rejected the Kansas Chamber’s litmus test in last week’s primary elections, and as a result, a substantial number of moderate Republican legislators will likely return to the State Capitol in January.
The failure of the Kansas Chamber’s campaign could be dismissed as simply the power of incumbency, as some observers have suggested.
Another view is that Kansas voters rejected the politics of litmus tests, balanced the difficult issues of state taxing and spending on education and social services, and exercised independent judgment, just as state legislators are required to do.
Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University and coauthor of a new book on Kansas politics.