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Bipartisanship Takes a Hit in This Year's Legislative Primaries

More than a dozen incumbent legislators may have lost seats in Tuesday's primaries, including a state Senate president. The results continued a trend of insufficiently ardent partisans being unseated in both parties.

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The empty chamber of the Kansas state legislature, where incumbents have lost in the state primary. (Photo: David Kidd
Two of the nation’s reddest states just grew more conservative. Perhaps a dozen Republican legislators were unseated in primaries in Alaska and Wyoming on Tuesday, beaten by challengers running to their right.

In Alaska, Senate President Cathy Giessel trailed by more than 40 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s voting. Tyler Lindholm, the majority whip in the Wyoming House, lost his seat, as did two other committee chairs in the state.

In both states, challengers received significant funding from political action committees pushing for a change in legislative direction. The Alaska House has a Republican majority on paper but is run by a Democrat-heavy coalition. Not surprisingly, Republican members of the coalition were targeted in primaries. “The House is a tossup as to whether it retains the bipartisan coalition,” says Jerry McBeath, a political scientist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.

The Wyoming Legislature is solidly Republican, but incumbents there faced challengers who complained they were too soft on taxes and gun rights. Half the Senate GOP incumbents and more than a third of those in the House faced primary challenges — double the number in 2018. One challenger, Nina Webber, put up billboards showcasing herself holding a red, white and blue rifle and pledging to “go western” on RINOs (a derogatory term for “Republicans in name only”).

The action in Alaska and Wyoming followed a pattern that’s been clear all year. Most incumbent legislators win renomination easily, but plenty are being challenged for being insufficiently ardent as partisans. Republicans are facing challenges from the right, while Democrats are having to fend off often younger, more progressive opponents.

“It’s open season on incumbents nationwide,” McBeath says, “and that extends to Alaska.”

In Kansas, a dozen moderate Republicans were taken out by conservative candidates in primaries earlier this month. Republican legislators have also been unseated in states such as Idaho and West Virginia, including West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael. On the Democratic side, several legislators apiece have gone down to defeat against progressives in Minnesota, New Mexico, New York and Pennsylvania.

The longstanding trend toward polarization will clearly continue, with voters ready to punish apostates and offering few rewards to legislators who reach across the aisle.

“We see very similar divisions in these primaries for Republicans and Democrats,” says Jaclyn Kettler, a political scientist at Boise State University. “Bipartisanship is going to be, theoretically, even harder.”

Three Florida House members lost on Tuesday, Democrats Kimberly Daniels and Al Jacquet and Republican Mike Hill. Jacquet and Hill had made controversial or offensive statements, while Daniels lost support among Democrats due to her support of school vouchers and abortion restrictions.

Daniels and Jacquet were among several Democrats who faced more progressive opponents, although the others survived. There was less ideological wrangling among majority Republicans, who in Florida have left potential opponents with few lines of attack.

“Most of the Republicans in our state legislature are pretty conservative and they’re pretty pro-Trump, at least out loud,” says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. “They all seem cognizant of the possibility that they might be challenged if they’re not sufficiently conservative, or not sufficiently pro-Trump.”

Arguing Over the Permanent Fund

Due to falling oil prices, Alaska already faced a budget shortfall prior to the coronavirus pandemic. In the spring, state revenues plunged by nearly half, the worst decline in any state.

That provides part of the backdrop to the primary fights on the Republican side. Several GOP legislators who are not part of the House coalition also found themselves targeted due to debate over the permanent fund dividend. Alaska has no state sales or income taxes, relying instead on severance taxes from oil, which also provide a dividend to residents. Due to plunging prices, the state hasn’t paid out the full permanent fund dividend since 2016.

The embattled incumbents noted that the fund accounts for three-quarters of state revenues. Challengers said they could cut spending enough to be able to pay out higher dividends.

That proved to be a winning argument. Five Republican House members and four GOP senators, including Giessel, trailed when vote-counting stopped early on Wednesday morning.

Some of them may stage a comeback. The state won’t count absentee ballots until next week. Those are expected to lean more to the left, with labor unions and other groups encouraging independents – who make up a majority of registered voters in Alaska – to vote by mail.

But Giessel was down by 40 points in election day voting. She’d have to win three-quarters of the absentee vote to make up the difference, according to an estimate by the Anchorage Daily News.

Some other incumbents are clearly goners. Coalitions including Democrats have run the Alaska House for the last two sessions. That might be over. The Senate, which is firmly in Republican hands, nevertheless has a functional majority that might also lose its grasp on power.

Last year, GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy faced an unsuccessful recall effort due to spending cuts, including a proposed 41 percent reduction in state assistance to the University of Alaska. There could be more belt-tightening to come. Paying out the full permanent fund dividend would likely lead to a 50 percent reduction in total state spending.

Budgets at Issue

Arguments over levels of government spending were also central during the Aug. 4 Kansas primary. Conservatives were angry about increases in education spending (although they were demanded by the state supreme court), as well as a deal to expand Medicaid proposed by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, who did not seek re-election.

Kansas has the clearest factionalism in the country, with power ping-ponging over the past decade between conservative and moderate Republicans. Moderates scored gains in 2016 in response to the aggressive tax-cutting agenda of former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback. They gave back some of those seats in the state House during the 2018 primaries. They lost more this month. This year’s primaries represented the first chance conservatives had to take out Senate moderates elected in 2016 and they largely succeeded.

Some former Republican moderates have switched to the Democratic Party, including state Sen. Barbara Bollier, who is her new party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate this year. As in other states, suburbs in Kansas are tilting more toward the Democratic Party.

But while Democrats may still gain some ground in November, the overall tilt of the Legislature will be more conservative, says Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. “We may have more Democrats in Topeka, but a legislature that’s even less friendly to Gov. Kelly than it is now,” he says.

“I think we’ll see more conservative leadership in both chambers,” Miller continues. “We could have more gridlock out of this and it will be harder getting the budget done. Certainly, there’s going to be less bipartisanship.”

The state of Wyoming faces a two-year budget shortfall of about $1.5 billion. Challengers warned that incumbents stood ready to raise taxes. The incumbents, for the most part, touted their own conservative bona fides, but warned that their challengers would defund education and infrastructure.

Most of the incumbents survived. “Ninety-three percent of the incumbents who were running were renominated,” says Jim King, a political scientist at the University of Wyoming. “Most of the incumbents were running uncontested.”

But a total of four incumbents lost their seats. Given the well-funded nature of the anti-RINO challenge, not too many Republicans will be eager to step out of line when the question of raising taxes to address the budget shortfall comes up. If it comes up. 

“The outcome of those races will make a big difference on the mentality of members of the Revenue Committee if we’re going to really present some suggestions or if it’s really not worth our time,” state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, who chairs the committee, told the Casper Star-Tribune. “If there are five more people who pledged not to raise taxes, then there’s no reason to waste time bringing these bills forward.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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