Topeka Moderate Republicans who are trying to retain control of the Kansas Senate are likely to get help from Democrats who've temporarily switched parties to vote against conservative challengers in GOP primary races, the state Democratic Party's leader said Monday.
State Chairwoman Joan Wagnon said Kansas Democratic Party officials have seen hundreds of people change their party affiliations to the GOP in counties with contested Senate races on Tuesday's primary ballot. The state GOP allows only registered Republicans to vote in its primaries.
Wagnon said Democrats were trying to pin down firm figures on the party switchers, but she believes it's a significant number.
Voter registration numbers from Secretary of State Kris Kobach's office also suggested such a trend is possible. The number of registered Republicans, unaffiliated and total voters is higher than at the same point in 2010, but the number of registered Democrats has declined.
A majority of the state Senate's 40 districts and the House's 125 districts had contested primaries, but the hottest races in Kansas were a dozen contests in which a moderate GOP senator faced a more conservative challenger. Conservatives hoped to oust the incumbents and end moderate Senate leaders' ability to stymie moves to the right in fiscal and social policy.
"All kinds of people see that there's a huge threat with the loss of the Senate, so they're switching over," Wagnon said.
Kansas has about 1.7 million registered voters and when registration for the primary closed in mid-July, the number was seven-tenths of 1 percent higher than in mid-July 2010. Republican registrations were up 2.3 percent and unaffiliated registrations up 3.7 percent.
But Democratic registrations were 5 percent lower in mid-July than in mid-July 2010. And figures from Kobach's office showed that Democratic registrations dropped after July 1.
Clay Barker, the state GOP's executive director, said the numbers may reflect the Republican Party's dominance in Kansas politics, with GOP primary contests settling some races. He's not sure party switching is widespread and said it's been happening since Kansas began holding primaries more than a century ago.
"It's always a concern," he said. "It does irk me that people come into the party to screw up the results within the party and then leave."
Moderate GOP senators joined Democrats in resisting Gov. Sam Brownback's successful push to cut state income taxes this year. The bipartisan coalition in the Senate has prevented Brownback's fellow conservatives from going as far as they'd like toward lessening the political influence of labor unions, remaking the appellate courts and moving new public employees into a 401(k)-style pension plan.
The state's largest teachers' union and other labor groups were working with GOP moderates, and some Democrats said their party's members were switching their voter registrations to influence Republican races. The powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the anti-tax, small-government group Americans for Prosperity were backing conservatives' efforts to remake the Senate.
Still, Kobach was predicting that only 18 percent of the state's 1.7 million registered voters — about 310,000 — would cast ballots. Republicans generally believe a low turnout favors conservatives.