The Week in Politics: Governors' Campaign Finance Problems, Oldest Legislator Ousted and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | July 29, 2016

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Some Kansas Republicans Seek Revenge 

Four years ago, Kansas GOP Gov. Sam Brownback and other conservatives managed to unseat eight moderate Republicans in the state Senate who had blocked parts of his agenda. This year, the moderate wing is hoping to exact its revenge.

Backed by an unusual bipartisan coalition of former governors unhappy with the direction in which Brownback has taken the state, dozens of moderates are challenging conservative incumbents in next Tuesday's House and Senate primaries. And they have a good chance of winning many of the races. A number of the challengers have outraised their incumbent opponents, and a May poll showed Brownback had the lowest approval rating of any U.S. governor, at 26 percent.

Moderate and conservative factions of the Kansas GOP have been battling for decades. Over the past 20 years -- and particularly during Brownback's tenure -- conservatives have gained increasingly more strength.

"The moderates sense an opening because some of the conservatives have been more ideological, as opposed to being attentive to district issues," said Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University.

This year's moderate candidates are running on a unified platform, lambasting Brownback for cuts to education and other budget reductions precipitated by his ambitious tax cutting.

But critics like Mike O'Neal, the president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which is backing conservatives, say moderates are running a sort of "stealth campaign." He says moderates are downplaying the types of votes they might cast once in office in "favor of giving government more money to spend. They're smart enough in the political cycle to know that's not a winning message in a Republican primary."

At least 30 races are worth watching between the two chambers, said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.

"There's very little room for conservatives to pick up ground in the Republican caucus, just from the sheer fact that they didn't run many candidates in districts held by moderates," said Miller. "I wouldn't be surprised to see some of the better-qualified moderates win on election night."

But whether moderates can gain enough ground to return to ruling either chamber -- and perhaps even working collaboratively with Democrats -- remains very much an open question. Every couple of years, they talk about regaining lost ground, but it hasn't happened yet.

Indiana Republicans Pick Pence's Replacement

Eric Holcomb began the year struggling in his bid to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. He might end the year having been elected governor of Indiana.

On Tuesday, the Republican State Committee selected Holcomb to replace Mike Pence, who gave up his gubernatorial re-election bid to pursue the vice presidency. Holcomb beat out three other hopefuls, including runner-up U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks.

Pence picked Holcomb as his new lieutenant governor in March. To conclude his unexpected ascent to the governorship, Holcomb, a former state GOP chair who has never won elected office, will have to beat Democrat John Gregg, who has amassed a sizeable cash advantage.

It appears that Pence won't be able to help out Holcomb in this regard. Campaign finance experts have suggested that Pence, as a federal candidate, won't be able to transfer the bulk of his $7.4 state campaign treasury to Holcomb -- promised money that was a centerpiece of Holcomb's claim on the nomination.

Fresh Headaches for Connecticut's Governor

Speaking of governors and their campaign finance problems, Connecticut Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy is facing new questions about his political fundraising. Federal prosecutors are convening a grand jury to look into allegations that Malloy's 2014 campaign was illegally helped by the state Democratic Party.

Malloy had accepted public financing through the state's clean elections law, which precluded him from receiving additional financial help. The question is whether Malloy violated campaign finance restrictions by soliciting funds for the party from state contractors.

He denies any wrongdoing and party officials have said they were simply following the matrix of conflicting state and federal rules regulating accounts for different types of campaign activities.

But last month, the Connecticut Democratic Party agreed to pay $325,000 to settle a related State Elections Enforcement Commission investigation. 

Odds and Ends 

Oldest Legislator Ousted: Georgia Republican John Yates lost his state House seat Tuesday in a runoff against chiropractor Karen Mathiak. Yates, who is 94, is the oldest state legislator in the country and was the last remaining World War II veteran in the Georgia legislature.

It's Not Always Sunny in PennsylvaniaLast week, federal prosecutors brought charges against former Pennsylvania Treasurer Barbara Hafer and a businessman in a bribery-and-kickback scheme. Hafter was charged with two counts of making false statements to federal agents in an attempt to hide $500,000 worth of payments from the businessman's firm.

Campaign Complaint in Missouri Governor's RaceCarl Bearden, a former GOP state representative, has filed an ethics complaint against Eric Greitens, a candidate in next week's Republican primary for Missouri governor. Bearden contends that Greitens improperly received nearly $2 million -- the largest campaign contribution in state history -- from a federal super PAC. The complaint will not be acted on before voting next week.

Internet Scam?Illinois state Rep. Ron Sandack, a top legislative ally of GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, announced his resignation, complaining that politics had gotten "too ugly" and suggesting his social media accounts had been hacked.

Some observers wondered if there's more to the story.

"The claim that some online mischief maker using tired and predictable tricks drove one of the state's most prominent lawmakers back into private life sounds more like pretext than explanation," wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn.

DuPage County Republicans plan to name Sandack's replacement this weekend. 

*Correction: John Yates was the last remaining World War II veteran in the Georgia legislature (not the last WWII veteran in any statehouse). 

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