End may be coming for GOP moderates

Primary candidates face opposition from outside forces

Will Aug. 7 be the last stand for moderate Republicans in Kansas?

If Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative, has anything to say about it, it might.

“It’s pretty obvious that Gov. Brownback and the conservatives are putting on a major effort to absolutely gain control,” said Mark Peterson, political science professor at Washburn University.

Of moderate Republicans, Peterson said, “They’re in a constant state of erosion, and it’s clear that conservative values are a very big thing right now.”

Conservatives already rule the House and the executive branch. The last remaining toehold for moderates is the Kansas Senate.

Republicans hold a 32-8 margin over Democrats in the Senate, and of those 32 Republicans, conservatives hold a slight edge.

But moderate Republicans and Democrats have been able to team up to eke out majorities on several key issues.

If there’s a swing of two or three seats, conservatives would run the Senate, too, so a few hundred votes in a handful of key races could be the deciding factor Aug. 7, the day of the Republican Party primary.

Across the state, incumbent moderates are being taken on by conservatives in the GOP primary.

Brownback entered the fray, saying in a prepared statement: “Because of the alliance in the state Senate between Democrats and some Republicans that join together to promote a Democrat agenda, the primary election has effectively become the general. Therefore, I am going to be involved in a limited number of primaries.”

Brownback’s camp refused to provide a list of which candidates he was endorsing, but statements from some of the candidates and appearances by Brownback have revealed some of his picks.

For example, Tom Arpke, a conservative from Salina, got Brownback’s endorsement against Sen. Pete Brungardt, also from Salina.

Brownback has also endorsed Rep. Jim Denning for Senate District 8, who faces incumbent Sen. Tim Owens, and Rep. Greg Smith who is running for the state Senate District 21 in a contested primary. Both of those districts are in Johnson County.

Brownback’s allies, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, have also targeted moderate Republicans for defeat, such as Senate President Steve Morris, of Hugoton, Jean Schodorf, of Wichita, Vicki Schmidt, of Topeka, and Carolyn McGinn, of Sedgwick.

One of the key stated fears of moderates is that if conservatives control both the House and Senate, then Brownback will be able to ram through public school changes that were shelved during the last legislative session.

Brownback’s proposal would have eliminated state limits on local property tax increases for education and replaced a system that gives districts with large populations of at-risk students more money. But critics said removing property tax limits would have widened funding disparities between rich and poor school districts, and that replacing the at-risk weighting didn’t take into account how student populations change.

Some moderate Republicans also find the tax cuts that Brownback signed into law contrary to good governance. Brownback said the cuts will spur the economy and create jobs, but critics say the cuts will benefit mostly the wealthy while robbing the state treasury of needed funds for schools and social services.

“Kansas education cannot survive with the tax cuts that were passed and still manage to produce the kind of results that Kansans expect from their education system,” said Rochelle Chronister, a Republican who has been involved in state government and politics for decades.

Chronister is the spokeswoman for a group of 55 former legislators — all Republicans — called Traditional Republicans for Common Sense. The group has been highly critical of Brownback. Chronister said she hopes that moderate Republicans survive the primary.

So why don’t moderate Republicans join the Democratic Party if they feel under attack in their own party?

Chronister said that while some Kansas Democrats seem sensible — she pointed out Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka — the national Democratic Party is too liberal for many moderate Republicans.

Peterson, the Washburn political science professor, said the dominance of the GOP in Kansas is too much of a climb to entice moderate Republicans, outside of a few notable exceptions, to join the Democratic Party.

He said he has spoken with several moderate Republicans who tell him “there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of affecting policy in this state if you are not a member of the Republican Party.”