The Week in Politics: Missouri's Record-Breaking Primary, Democrats Lose a Long-Held Office in Washington and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | August 5, 2016

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Brownback Faces a Long Final 2 Years in Office

Kansas GOP Gov. Sam Brownback suffered a serious setback with the results of Republican legislative primaries on Tuesday. A number of his allies, including state Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, lost their seats.

Moderate Republicans, unhappy with Brownback's agenda of deeply cutting taxes and spending, ran a large slate of candidates and ended up faring better than expected, knocking off a dozen incumbent conservatives.  

“Brutal. Brutal. Brutal,” state Rep. Dan Hawkins, a conservative Republican who was renominated, told the Wichita Eagle. “Absolutely brutal.”

All told, moderates were nominated in eight Senate seats and 13 House seats previously held by conservatives, including those seats left open by retirements. The final size of the rejuvenated moderate caucus will depend on how many prevail against Democrats in the fall, but it's clear that Brownback's governing majority is in tatters.

"The bottom line is that Brownback has taken a shellacking," said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. "His unpopularity drove this result, even in his own party. On major legislation, his agenda, especially in the House, is going to be effectively dead."

Missouri Governor's Race Set to Keep Breaking Spending Records

Eric Greitens, a former Rhodes scholar and Navy Seal, successfully positioned himself as an outsider in the most expensive primary contest in Missouri's history.

In the Republican primary Tuesday to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, Greitens outpaced businessman John Brunner, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and former state House Speaker Catherine Hanaway. He'll now face Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster in November.

"Greitens will continue to campaign as the outsider," said David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Indeed, in his victory speech, Greitens referred to Koster as "the poster child for career politicians." 

There is one thing the candidates have in common, though: Both are party switchers. Greitens is a former Democrat, while Koster was once a Republican.

But Greitens ran as a fiery conservative insurgent. He introduced himself to voters with ads showing him firing a massive machine gun or an assault rifle and promising to "take aim at politics as usual."

Koster, however, starts off the general election campaign with about $10 million more cash on hand than Greitens. He's taken liberal positions on labor and social issues but pledges to be a fiscal conservative.

"I changed parties to become a conservative Democrat because I saw the Republican Party heading down a dark alley with no escape," he said Tuesday.

There was a dark cloud hanging over the GOP primary. While running for governor, State Auditor Tom Schweich killed himself last year, apparently upset by personal attacks launched against him. His suicide may have hurt at least one rival's campaign.

"I do think that Hanaway never recovered from her indirect association with Tom's suicide and her connection to Sinquefield," said Ken Warren, a political scientist at St. Louis University.

He's referring to Rex Sinquefield, a retired financier who is the top donor in Missouri politics -- and, as a result, has become something of a populist target himself. Sinquefield had given Hanaway $4.5 million, but it didn't help. In fact, Sinquefield spent $11 million in support of four GOP statewide candidates, each of whom lost on Tuesday.

Another free spender, David Humphreys, who owns a buildings product company, devoted $3 million to a political action committee that sought to defeat pro-union Republicans. Last year, 20 House Republicans voted to uphold Nixon's veto of a right-to-work bill, which never became law.

Candidates supported by Humphreys unseated three of them on Tuesday.

"It appears that the GOP has purged most of the right-to-work opponents from their caucus in the legislature," said Kimball.

Other Primary Results You May Have Missed 

Washington: Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee is favored to win a second term this year. In Washington, all candidates appear on the same primary ballot, with the two top finishers advancing to November, regardless of party.

They're still counting all-mail ballots, but Inslee, while falling short of a majority, is up by 10 points over his Republican opponent Bill Bryant. 

The treasurer's office, though, is about to change hands. Democrats have held the office for the past 60 years, but that streak is about to end. Three Democrats split a bare majority of the vote between them. If current results hold, two Republicans -- Benton County Treasurer Duane Davidson and asset manager Michael Waite -- will come out on top in the primary and appear on the November ballot.

Washington's legislative races will be hotly competitive. Republicans need a net gain of two seats to take over the House, while the same is true for Democrats in the Senate. A number of primaries were ultra-close on Tuesday. Democratic state Sen. Mark Mullett and Republican state Sen. Steve Litzow, for instance, are each ahead in their races by about 1 percentage point.

Washington is one of several states seeing big money in judicial elections this year. Business groups and charter school supporters are spending heavily in hopes of unseating three state Supreme Court justices. The only one who faced more than one opponent, and therefore had a primary election on Tuesday, was Chief Justice Barbara Madsen. She came out well ahead with 64 percent of the vote.

Michigan: In Michigan, Republicans control the state House with a 63 to 45 seat majority. Democrats are hoping to erase that margin, so most of the action will happen in the fall. 

The state did have an active primary season, with 38 of the chamber's seats left open by term limits. In a pair of closely watched races Tuesday, conservative state Rep. Lee Chatfield prevailed over a more moderate opponent, while state Rep. Mary Whiteford defeated a more conservative challenger. Democratic state Rep. Brian Banks, a convicted felon who faces fresh charges for submitting false documents for a loan application, also won his primary.

Democrats will have a hard time flipping the chamber in the fall, said Susan Demas, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics.

"The Dems had a couple of primary races -- one in Wayne County and another in northern Michigan -- where their strongest general election candidate lost," she said.

Demas notes that Democrats haven't picked up as many as nine state House seats since Barack Obama carried the state in 2008 by a 16-point landslide. Although a poll released Thursday shows Hillary Clinton leading the state comfortably, Donald Trump is ahead in Macomb County and the northern part of the state, which could be a drag on Democrats in several pivotal House races.

Todd Courser, who resigned his state House seat last year in the wake of a sex scandal, tried to unseat Tim Turkelson, the Lapeer County prosecutor who declined to bring charges against an anonymous texter Courser said had extorted him. Both lost to attorney Mike Sharkey. 

Tennessee: In its Thursday primary, two incumbent GOP state House members in legal peril lost their seats, but a third held on to his.

Republican Rep. Curry Todd, who made national headlines this week after he was caught on video and arrested for stealing his opponent's yard signs and apparently failing to talk to investigators, was easily defeated. His $100 bail was put up by a surprising source -- his opponent, Mark Lovell. Lovell said he wasn't sure Todd would pay him back.

"It's like lending money to your nephews," he said. "You don't expect to get it back. I figured it was a good deed."

GOP Rep. Jeremy Durham suspended his campaign last month after the attorney general released a report accusing him of serial sexual harassment. Durham denied any wrongdoing. He was beaten by retired Army officer Sam Whitson.

But criminal charges didn't hurt GOP Rep. Martin Daniel. He was renominated despite having been charged with misdemeanor assault for allegedly shoving one of his opponents, Steve Hall, during a candidate forum.

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