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In Kansas, It’s GOP vs. GOP

For years, there have been two kinds of Republicans in the Kansas statehouse: conservatives and moderates. This year, the conservatives want total control.

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This could be the last competitive election year Kansas sees for a long while. But it’s going to be a humdinger.

Republicans control everything in Kansas state politics -- except maybe for other Republicans. For about two decades, the state GOP has been divided between factions generally described as either moderate or conservative. This year, that schism is leading to open warfare in Senate races.

Moderates once were kings, but in Kansas, as elsewhere, conservatives have been gathering strength. They now hold the state House and governorship. Moderates, however, have kept effective control of the Senate, sometimes by working with Democrats.

The conservatives want it all and are already challenging moderates in the August primaries -- including Senate President Steve Morris and several powerful committee chairs.

Morris predicts that every moderate will be targeted. “The primary season is going to be brutal,” says Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist. “You have probably eight to 10 moderate senators being challenged by conservatives, often good candidates.”

Conservatives lined up before the election year got under way -- and well before redistricting has even made certain the fields of battle. With an ambitious agenda at stake, including a proposal to abolish the state income tax, they’ll have no shortage of funding. And with so many sitting House members in the hunt, senators might find that their usual incumbent advantage has been eroded, says Alan Cobb, vice president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group.

“If we don’t see change in the way the Senate votes, we’re not going to be able to turn this state around economically,” says Brenda Landwehr, a state representative challenging moderate Republican Sen. Jean Schodorf, the majority whip, in Wichita. “Jean and I have a clear black-and-white difference in our voting records, and two of [those differences] would be with spending and with taxes.”

Loomis predicts that candidates like Landwehr will get lots of fundraising help from both in and out of the state. But moderates will have resources too. They control the Senate’s leadership political action committee and will coordinate fundraising efforts, in some cases with Democrats.

They understand the stakes. Conservatives only need to win a couple more seats to pick the chamber’s leaders. With no other check on conservatives, control of the Senate is the last stand for those who support maintaining funding levels for education, social services, highways and health care.

Unions and contractors will therefore be writing checks for moderates. If the moderates lose their advantage this year, it’s hard to see when they could win power back, given the momentum that conservatives have enjoyed for years.

“It’s just been a matter of time, that you would have conservatives controlling the Kansas Senate,” Cobb says.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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