Topeka Five longtime political observers said Wednesday the recent election in Kansas was a stunning setback for Democrats, social conservatives have taken over the Republican Party, and Gov.-elect Sam Brownback will be judged on how he governs in this politically charged atmosphere.
During a discussion at Washburn University, Kansas University professor Burdett Loomis, Kansas State University professor Joe Aistrup, Wichita State University professor Ed Flentje and Washburn professors Mark Peterson and Bob Beatty, dissected the last election and what the results may mean for Kansas.
Republicans easily won all statewide and congressional races and gained 16 seats in the Kansas House to take a 92-33 advantage in that chamber. The GOP already has a 31-9 margin in the Senate.
Loomis said the Democratic losses sent the party back to the 1950s. But Aistrup said it was worse for the Democrats. "I think they are back in the stone ages," he said.
The GOP wave, including Brownback, a Republican U.S. senator who has been in Congress the past 16 years, puts the party at center stage.
Flentje said despite Brownback's social conservative credentials, he will be judged in his new job on how he handles public school finance, higher education and Medicaid.
"He'll be judged on things that he has never been judged on before," Flentje said.
Peterson said social conservatives will get many of their issues passed through the Legislature, such as tighter abortion regulations. But he said conservatives shouldn't overplay their hand.
"You have a very unhappy, grumpy electorate," he said.
The group said Brownback, who has had presidential ambitions, and conservatives in the Legislature should be careful not to overreach.
Flentje said Brownback has had three political lives. When he was state agriculture commissioner he was considered a progressive, then he went to Congress as a fiscal conservative but found he couldn't stop federal spending. He then became a social conservative "wearing his faith in the public square and aligning himself with a series of congressional actions to essentially expand the role of faith in the public square," he said.
But Flentje said as governor, Brownback needs to focus on governing and administering.
"I think because he will have 92 Republicans (in the House), there is going to be a significant number of those folks that will start making Brownback look like a moderate," he said. Some House Republicans have called for repeal of the 1-cent sales tax increase that was approved by Democrats and moderate Republicans during the last legislative session. Brownback, however, has said he doesn't want to repeal the increase.
Loomis said Brownback cannot make Kansas a "social conservative paradise" if he has national aspirations. "I honestly think that he does want to be president and he has to be seen as a success," Loomis said. Brownback ran for president in the 2008 cycle but didn't get much traction and dropped out of the race.
The professors said Democrats were the victims of an energized Republican electorate. They pointed to State Treasurer Dennis McKinney, a conservative Democrat, as an example of a candidate who was steam-rolled by Kansas voters unhappy with national politics.
Aistrup said the Democrats had weak candidates at the top of the ticket. Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat who decided not to run, may not have won but he could have provided some help to the downballot statewide candidates, he said. "They needed a good old-fashioned Kansas windbreak at the top," he said.
Beatty said some of the Democratic candidates were too slow to respond to charges made in TV ads by outside groups.