There’s a lot of talk around the country these days about the terrible state of our government and the need to get rid of incumbent lawmakers.
That talk, however, doesn’t always turn into action. Congressional races have drawn a lot of attention in Kansas this year because there are no incumbents in the U.S. Senate race or three of the four U.S. House races. It’s a different story, however, in the Kansas House races.
All of the 125 House seats are up for election this year. When the filing deadline for those seats passed last week, almost a third of those seats were being sought by only one person. Thirty-nine candidates, including 37 incumbent legislators, have no opposition from either party for the November election. That includes two Democratic lawmakers from Lawrence: Rep. Barbara Ballard and Rep. Paul Davis.
The situation isn’t particularly unusual. In fact, some recent House elections have had even more unopposed candidates. In 2002, 52 candidates were unopposed. The number of unopposed candidates dipped to 47 in 2004 and 36 in 2006 before rebounding to 44 in 2008. In most of those elections, Ballard was among the unopposed candidates. Davis, who was appointed to his seat after Rep. Troy Findley stepped down in January 2003, has never had election opposition.
The only Douglas County seat that drew enough candidates to require a primary was in the 10th District. Two Republicans — Scott Barnhart of Ottawa and Teri Gregory of Baldwin City — are seeking to unseat Democratic Rep. Tony Brown of Baldwin City.
A couple of factors may be contributing to the lack of candidate filings. First, there is a tendency for people to think that any problems being caused by lawmakers at the state or federal levels are being caused by someone else’s elected representative. People tend to like their own representatives or at least are willing to accept them over the alternatives.
Which suggests to the other factor: the difficulty of running for and serving in public office and the associated difficulty of finding intelligent, well-motivated candidates who are willing to rise to the challenge. Running for office is a big commitment, often undertaken these days with limited support from local party organizations. Candidates shoulder most of the load of raising money and putting together campaign committees. And, if elected, they need to be in a position to take time from their jobs or other activities to devote to legislative activities both during the session and the rest of the year. Being upset with government is one thing; being willing and able to run for office is another matter.
Term limits get rid of incumbents, but they don’t guarantee either change or improvement in government. That’s up to a well-informed populace that not only votes but helps encourage and support strong candidates for office.
Although the number of unopposed candidates in this year’s Kansas House elections isn’t unprecedented, it would be nice if voters in all Kansas districts had a meaningful choice on the ballot.