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Switching Parties: Kansas Legislators Ditch GOP to Become Democrats

The party switching comes after a nationwide surge of Democratic voters in suburban areas. The surge helped defeat Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, and some state lawmakers are now aligning themselves with this new political reality.

By Jonathan Shorman

Two more Kansas lawmakers are leaving the Republican Party to become Democrats, shrinking the ranks of GOP moderates after the Legislature grew more conservative in the November election.

Sen. Dinah Sykes and Rep. Stephanie Clayton, both moderate Johnson County Republicans, said Wednesday they are becoming Democrats. They join Sen. Barbara Bollier, who left the Republican Party earlier in December.

The party switching comes after a nationwide surge of Democratic voters in suburban areas. The surge helped defeat Republican U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, and some state lawmakers are now aligning themselves with this new political reality.

Clayton, of Overland Park, called out what she described as "recent moves to support chaos in public policy" that she said had caused her great concern. She said she first ran for office in 2010, when her daughter was in first grade, because of a lack of stable funding for public education.

"Leaders in the Kansas House and Senate have now indicated that they will seek to scrap the bipartisan education plan achieved over the last two years, just as we are so close to solving this problem and ending the cycle of school litigation," Clayton said in a statement.

"My Republican Party, then, seems to no longer represent or serve the interests of the 19th District, Johnson County, or the State of Kansas," she said.

Last week, House Speaker Ron Ryckman and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning addressed a meeting of educators and other lawmakers where the two leading Republicans spoke about school funding. Ryckman referred to the possibility that lawmakers may have to reopen the school funding formula, or potentially start over, according to multiple people in the room.

The Kansas Supreme Court has largely signed off on a five-year plan to ramp up annual school funding by $525 million approved last spring, but faulted the Legislature for not accounting for inflation. Additional funding to address that could require roughly $90 million more a year, and the court expects lawmakers to act during the upcoming session.

Some Republicans have questioned the affordability of the additional funding, but Democratic Gov-elect Laura Kelly supports it.

In a statement explaining her switch, Sykes, of Lenexa, said she feels she can either "fight to change the Republican party or fight for the state I love and the people I serve," adding she thinks she can better the state and her constituents as a Democrat.

"I am a moderate person who represents a moderate and pragmatic district that expects me to focus on issues and solutions that impact their day-to-day lives. Increasingly, I see the Republican party focusing on issues and approaches that divide our country. I do not agree with that approach," Sykes said.

Kansas Democrats did not gain any legislative seats in the November election, holding steady at 40 seats in the House and nine in the Senate (senators were not up election). Still, Democrats will now hold 41 seats in the House and 11 in the Senate when the legislative session begins in January.

House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, said Clayton would be welcomed into the House Democratic caucus.

"We have continuously worked with her on important issues such as education and healthcare, and look forward to working alongside Stephanie as a member of our caucus. She is a public servant with incredibly impressive passion, grit, and drive to do the right thing for Kansans," Sawyer said.

In addition to Sykes, Clayton and Bollier, departing Rep. Joy Koesten has also become a Democrat. The Leawood lawmaker was defeated in the Republican primary in August.

The new Democrats may help boost Kelly, who will need votes not only for her agenda but also to potentially uphold vetoes of Republican-driven legislation.

Kelly has said she had advance notice of Bollier's decision to leave the Republican Party, but last Wednesday, when asked if she had advanced notice of anyone else, she said she didn't.

"Party affiliation is often like a religion and it's very, very difficult to go through that process to decide, 'OK, it's time to make a change,'" Kelly said during an on-stage interview with the Kansas News Service in Topeka.

Last week, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said Bollier had a voting record more liberal than some Democrats and that the only surprise was that she didn't end the façade of being a Republican sooner.

On Wednesday, Wagle issued a more muted response to Sykes.

"While I am disappointed that Senator Sykes will be joining the party of higher taxes and big government, she believes this move will allow her to better represent her district," Wagle said.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, wished Clayton well in her change, but noted that voters elected her as a Republican only a few weeks ago.

"While this certainly raises questions about a lack of transparency, this is a decision ultimately between Rep. Clayton and her constituents," Ryckman said.

All of the switching lawmakers come from Johnson County, the state's most populous. Traditionally a Republican stronghold, Democrats made significant inroads in November, powered in part by voters supporting Kelly for governor and Democrat Sharice Davids for Congress.

When Bollier announced her party switch on Dec. 12, Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said it would not surprise him in Sykes switched too.

"Like Bollier, her politics seem more in line" with Democrats than Republicans, he tweeted.

Sykes' district has trended Democratic quickly, with Democrat Paul Davis winning the district in the 2014 governor's race and Hillary Clinton winning it in the 2016 presidential race, Miller said. Davids also won it in November.

Sykes was elected to the Senate in 2016, part of a wave of moderate Republicans and Democrats swept into the Statehouse with marching orders to reverse then-Gov. Sam Brownback's signature 2012 tax cuts.

Clayton has been in the House since 2013 and is known for being especially active on social media -- regularly tweeting out votes that she takes during session. She has pushed for transparency legislation and has, at times, opposed Republican leadership.

When Bollier announced her switch, Clayton tweeted that she was "happy for and proud of my friend and mentor."

(c)2018 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

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