In Republican Primaries, Control of the Kansas House at Stake

Today is primary day in Kansas, so, obviously, we don't have any races between Democrats and Republican. Yet today's elections still could determine who controls the Kansas House of Representatives next year. Will conservative Republicans have the majority or will moderates exercise power?
by | August 3, 2010

Today is primary day in Kansas, so, obviously, we don't have any races between Democrats and Republican. Yet today's elections still could determine who controls the Kansas House of Representatives next year.

To understand what I mean, first you have to know the context. Since taking over for Kathleen Sebelius 15 months ago, Mark Parkinson has been a very productive governor by any reasonable measure. As a Democrat working with a Republican legislature, he’s resolved a long-standing dispute over new coal plants, signed a renewable energy plan and a statewide smoking ban, persuaded lawmakers to pass a temporary sales tax increase to blunt the impact of budget cuts and approved a new 10-year transportation funding plan.

There are several reasons for Parkinson's success. His decision not to seek a full term depoliticized the environment. His time as a former Kansas House member meant he had friends in the legislature. And, he exploited the divide between Kansas' moderate and conservative Republicans.

I didn't realize that divide remained so dramatic until I started reporting a piece on Parkinson. "Kansas, for all intents and purposes, has three political parties,” Parkinson says -- conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Democrats. The governor's victories only have been possible because of the support of Republican moderates. Parkinson, it's worth noting, is a former moderate Republican himself.

In the Kansas House, the divide is especially stark. The House Speaker, Mike O'Neal, is a conservative. Yet perhaps 20 House Republicans or so are willing to buck the leadership and side with Democrats on some key issues. This year, none was bigger than the vote to raise the sales tax, a move that has many conservatives infuriated.

When I spoke with Parkinson yesterday, I asked him whether he thought the coalition between Democrats and moderate Republicans would continue after he leaves office. "I could give you a better answer on Wednesday," he said. That's because several of the House Republicans who voted for the sales tax face challenges from the right. There have been some rumblings that Democrats and moderate Republicans might even team up to choose depose O'Neal and select a moderate speaker. But, for the coalition of Democrats and Republican moderates  to continue to exercise power -- either formally or informally -- the moderate Republicans have to survive.

After Parkinson told me that, I made an effort to figure out which Republican primaries to watch. The key ones, I think, are places where the Kansas Chamber of Commerce (a vocal opponent of the sales tax hike) has endorsed a primary challenger to an incumbent Republican who voted for the sales tax. Here's a list, for those of you who would like to follow along at home this evening:

Kansas Republican Primaries

As an aside, one thing I've gradually come to realize is that local and state chambers of commerce don't actually share a uniform political philosophy. Some are bastions of moderation, others are quite conservative. The head of the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, for example, is Denver Mayor (and Colorado Democratic gubernatorial candidate) John Hickenlooper's former chief of staff. Not too surprisingly, the Metro Denver Chamber has played key role in fighting the state's revenue-limiting Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. Along the same lines, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce endorsed that state's sales tax increase earlier this year. But the Kansas Chamber, in pretty similar circumstances, has led the opposition.

Finally, here are a couple of bonus Republican primaries to watch in Kansas today. The Kansas Senate doesn't have regularly scheduled elections this year, but there is a special in the 7th District between Republican incumbent Terrie Huntington, who supported the sales tax increase, and Chamber-backed challenger David Harvey. Plus, don't forget that Kris Kobach, Kansas' interstate immigration crusader, is hoping to be the Republican nominee for secretary of state.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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