Tuesday’s primary election wasn’t simply a win for conservative allies of Governor Sam Brownback – it was a decisive victory in the biggest battle yet over the heart and soul of the Kansas Republican Party. The governor and his allies purged moderates like the climactic scene of a Bourne thriller. While a few moderates survived, the story of the primary was the systematic elimination of nearly all of their kind in the Kansas Senate.
The stakes were high. The governor and his allies saw winning control of the Senate as a necessary prerequisite to pushing the remainder of Brownback’s aggressive agenda into law. KPERS, school funding reform, and further alterations to the tax code were blocked by the moderate-controlled Senate over the last two years, leading Brownback to declare war on the moderates by recruiting a well-prepared and financed group of conservatives to take them out.
Despite Team Brownback having a head start in the hunt, the team of Senate Majority Leader Steve Morris caught up quickly. Team Morris called in former Governor Bill Graves to fundraise and their allies set up at least two PACs to funnel money and support to moderates. A late direct mail and TV ad push made the lead-up to the vote look close.
When the votes began coming in, though, a different picture emerged: one of a rout. Aided by a turnout of just over twenty percent, conservatives consistently picked off moderate opponents one after the other. Of the twenty-one races moderates invested in, they won five and lost sixteen.
Only Vicki Schmidt, Kay Wolf, Carolyn McGinn, Jeff Longbine, and Jay Emler survived the onslaught. Tim Owens and Jean Schodorf, two bêtes noire of Governor Brownback, lost to conservative challengers by over 15 points. The biggest trophy came from southwest Kansas, where Morris lost to Larry Powell by 334 votes.
Assuming Democrats do not increase their footprint in the Senate this November, conservatives will control Cedar Crest, the House, and Senate.
The ramifications for the future of Kansas politics are significant. Despite quickly creating a campaign apparatus, the public did not respond to the moderates’ message for candidates like Joe Beveridge, Roger Reitz, and Pete Brungardt. Relying on contributions from unions to build the Team Morris campaign machine was risky and played into Governor Brownback’s assertion that the moderates and Democrats coalesced into an unholy alliance that hijacked the Senate. Attention will now turn to the general election, where Democrats will be aggressive in painting Team Brownback as extremists looking to tear down the mechanisms of Kansas government. But if Democrats cannot pick up at least six Senate seats, the Governor and his allies will have a stranglehold on the chamber.
Assuming the Democrats perform according to historical trends, the path for Governor Brownback’s preferred legislation is clear, as this midterm landslide has given him the closest thing to a mandate seen in thirty years. The governor’s allies will control both chambers of the legislature and will likely defer to the governor on any piece of legislation he chooses to promote. Stand in the governor’s way? Go the way of Thayer’s Dwayne Umbarger, who lost his southeast Kansas 15th District seat to Brownback ally Jeff King. There will be little dissent and the minority will have control of no mechanisms to block legislation. One party, indeed one faction, will be able to promote their agenda unimpeded.
Page 2 of 2 - Looking longer into the future, this is a pivotal victory for conservatives in the Republican Party that has moderates all but irrelevant. Team Morris, now likely to be renamed Team Schmidt, will have to decide if the fight is worth continuing or if it is time for a full retreat. Assuming he remains in office, the governor will focus his attention on the five remaining moderates in a bloody postscript to complete the transformation of the Senate in his own image. War has broken out within the Republican Party, and this may be the moderates’ Waterloo.