Democrats in Republican-leaning Kansas are limited to hoping that they’ll slow the GOP-dominated Legislature’s shift to the right, even as conservative Gov. Sam Brownback’s allies work to tie them to President Barack Obama.
With no U.S. Senate race this year and Republicans expected to comfortably win re-election to the state’s four U.S. House seats they currently hold, the most closely watched races as voters filed into polling stations Tuesday were for the Legislature. Republican Mitt Romney was expected to carry the state in the presidential race, as every GOP nominee has done since 1964.
Obama had a relatively strong showing in Kansas in 2008, grabbing nearly 42 percent of the vote. But there were signs early Tuesday that any momentum the president had created for state Democrats was fading.
“I’m just ready for a change,” said Jim Clark, a 42-year-old computer administrator from Topeka. He’s a registered Republican who voted for Obama last time, seeking change, but voted for Romney this year. Clark lost a full-time job two years ago and has worked temporary assignments since then.
“It’s tougher for me, personally,” Clark said. “The economy has not improved.”
Marianne Moore, a 47-year-old human resources director at a Wichita long-term-care facility, said she voted only for Obama and other Democrats and skipped races where Republicans were running unopposed. She said her husband is a teacher, and she thinks Brownback has hurt Kansas’ education system with his tax policies. She also said that through her job, she encounters a lot of people without health insurance, and she believes Obama’s health care overhaul will help fix this.
“I go back to health care reform — no matter which party you have, you have to have health care reform,” Moore said.
Kansas elections officials expected about 1.2 million registered voters to cast ballots on Tuesday. More than 330,000 people voted early, either by mail or in person at election offices.
Legislative races were intense because Democrats have worked with moderate Republicans leading the Senate to stall some of Brownback’s agenda, even though the GOP had majorities of 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House. The GOP right defeated eight moderate senators in the August primary and was looking to strengthen its hold on the Senate by ousting Democrats, so that both chambers would have conservative majorities.
The GOP’s biggest targets were four Democratic senators in northeast Kansas — Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka, Tom Holland of Baldwin City, Laura Kelly of Topeka and Kelly Kultala of Kansas City.
Democrats countered by trying to make legislative races a referendum on Brownback and massive income tax cuts enacted this year. Legislative researchers estimate that the tax cuts will be worth $4.5 billion over the next six years but also project that the reductions will create collective budget shortfalls approaching $2.5 billion during the same period.
Brownback and other supporters of the cuts contend they’ll stimulate the economy. But state officials and university economists were meeting Tuesday to issue a new financial forecast for the state — and were likely to project less tax revenues because of the cuts.
Candice Nava, a 27-year-old customer service representative and Wichita college student, said she voted for Obama and Democrats all the way down the ballot.
“I understand Kansas is a Republican state, but the views Democrats have to widen the middle class ... lots of people need assistance,” including help securing financial aid for college, said Nava.
Still, Democrats’ arguments didn’t resonate with Topeka voter Deborah Bryan, a librarian whose 40th birthday was Tuesday. She credits Brownback with righting the state’s finances and putting Kansas in a good economic position.
“I’m a big supporter of the governor,” she said after voting early Monday.
Conservatives also had help from the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which targeted Democrats with mailers associating them with Obama and the federal health care overhaul of 2010. In the Senate, Democrats and moderates blocked passage of a largely symbolic proposal to add a provision protesting the health care law to the state constitution.
A similar tactic worked against GOP moderates in this year’s primary and in 2010, when Brownback swept into office and Republicans captured all statewide and congressional races on the ballot since 1964.
But it failed to move Diane Pittman, a 59-year-old home day care operator from Topeka who waited in line 40 minutes to vote early Monday at the Shawnee County election office. Pittman is a registered Democrat supporting Obama’s bid for a second term.
“When you’re an educated voter, then you know not to be fooled by the shenanigans,” she said, keeping a watch on two of her day care students.