Douglas County remained a blue island in a mostly red sea as area Democrats maintained control of their legislative seats.
State Sens. Marci Francisco, Tom Holland and Anthony Hensley all won re-election, as did state Rep. Barbara Ballard. Democrat John Wilson won an open House seat.
The Democrats faced Republican challengers in a year when Kansas was going big for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback had helped defeat a number of moderate Republican senators in the August primary.
Entering the evening, Republicans held a 92-33 advantage in the House and a 32-8 margin in the Senate. More importantly, conservative Republicans were at majority strength in both chambers. It was unclear how much that balance had shifted as tight races came down to the wire across the state.
The legislative campaigns were dominated by debate over the massive tax cuts approved in the last legislative session and whether the cuts were so large they would cut into school and social service spending.
Legislative research staff estimate the tax cuts will produce a budget deficit of $2.5 billion within a few years, and Democrats argued that will lead to higher property taxes and cuts to schools.
The political landscape was further upended in June when three federal judges redrew political boundaries after the Legislature failed to complete that task.
On the legislative side, significant boundary changes shifted state Senate and House districts across the rest of Kansas.
Campaign spending from outside groups hit record levels, with the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and the billionaire Koch brothers supporting conservative Republicans, while the Kansas National Education Association and other unions supported Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Senate District 2
Francisco defeated Republican Ron Ellis, a retired teacher and cattle rancher from Meriden. Francisco was ahead 67 percent to 33 percent in incomplete returns.
In seeking her third term in the Senate, Francisco, a former mayor of Lawrence, said she would propose legislation scaling back the Brownback tax cut.
A portion of that tax-cutting package will exempt the owners of 191,000 partnerships, sole proprietorships and other businesses from state income taxes.
Francisco says she will propose limiting the pass-through business income tax exemption to the first $100,000 of nonwage income.
“I hope there is a willingness to go back and look at the tax measure,” she said.
While many of the Senate races featured sharp contrasts on policies, Francisco and Ellis agreed on several major issues.
Like Francisco, Ellis said the Brownback tax cuts have cut too deep. And Ellis and Francisco also said that recent state budget cuts to schools needed to be restored.
Ellis said he saw firsthand in the Oskaloosa school district how those cuts led to larger class sizes, employee layoffs and staff reductions through not filling positions vacated by retirements.
This was Ellis’ first run for elective office, but he had been active for years in Republican Party politics, working for the election of GOP candidates, including Brownback. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce had endorsed Ellis in the race.
Under the new district lines, a large portion of the 2nd District moved north into Jefferson County, but the major population was in Lawrence.
Hoarse from campaigning, Ellis said it was difficult for a person not from Lawrence to win the district. He said he was glad that the race had been respectful. “I wish her well,” he said of Francisco. “Hopefully we’ll get more funding for education,” he said.
Senate District 3
Holland, D-Baldwin City, overcame state Rep. Anthony Brown, R-Eudora, in a hard-fought campaign for the 3rd Senate District that featured sharp contrasts on statewide and local issues.
Holland and Brown, both legislative veterans, tangled over school finance, tax cuts and safety issues along Kansas Highway 10.
A 2011 traffic fatality on K-10 spurred a move by local officials to get the state to install cable median barriers along certain sections of the road.
Eudora Mayor Scott Hopson said when the community sought help from the Legislature, Holland answered the request and Brown didn’t. “He basically left us high and dry,” Hopson said of Brown.
Brown struck back, saying he had worked “tirelessly” behind the scenes with the Brownback administration. He pointed to a July letter from Kansas Department of Transportation Secretary Mike King, who thanked Brown “for your ongoing concern to see this project through.” King was appointed secretary by Brownback in March.
But former KDOT Secretary Deb Miller, who served from 2003 through 2011, said Holland and Hopson “were involved from start to finish in the discussions that led to the installation of new safety barriers in the highway median. Rep. Anthony Brown simply was not.”
Another local controversy erupted when Brown said that two Eudora school board members told him that state cuts to school funding were positive because they allowed the district to get rid of some “dead weight” in the district. Brown refused to identify the school board members, and all of the board members denied Brown’s claim.
On the wider issue of state school finance, Holland said the Brownback tax cuts that Brown voted for will decimate education funding in future years. But Brown has said the tax cuts will help boost the economy and put more money in the hands of Kansans.
Brown is among the group of conservative Republicans in the Legislature backed by groups affiliated with Brownback, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, the Koch brothers and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Meanwhile, Holland, who was unsuccessful as the Democratic nominee for governor in 2010, was endorsed by the Kansas National Education Association, the MainStream Coalition, Kansas Citizens for Higher Education, Economic Lifelines and Independence Inc.
The district changed under the judicial redistricting order by gaining much of southeast Lawrence, which had been represented by Francisco. Brown decided to run for the 3rd Senate District after the 38th House District, which he had represented, was moved into Johnson County.
Brown said he was unsure about his political future. “I don’t think any doors have been shut,” he said.
Senate District 19
Hensley, the longest serving legislator in Kansas and the Democratic leader in the Senate, overcame a challenge from political newcomer Casey Moore, a Republican who has lived in Kansas for six years.
Both candidates live in Topeka and, while the majority of the district is in Topeka, under the new redistricting plan, it has taken in a large portion of western Douglas County.
Moore criticized Hensley’s longevity in the Legislature, saying he was out of step with the district. Moore was born the same year Hensley was first elected to the Legislature.
But Hensley said his 36 years in the Statehouse, first in the House and, since 1992, in the Senate, proved that his constituents thought he was doing a good job.
The two fought over taxes, with Hensley saying that the cuts signed into law by Brownback would benefit wealthy Kansans and squeeze state funds to schools and social services. Moore signed on to Brownback’s philosophy that the cuts would help job creators create more jobs. Moore said he favored more tax cuts.
Moore sometimes attacked Hensley personally, questioning Hensley’s status as a teacher in the Topeka public school system while serving as a legislator. The school district said Hensley was not paid while working in the Legislature, and Hensley said he made up for his work absences by working summer school.
Moore, who has worked as a singles pastor, written a book on Christian dating and now trades commodities in his home, received the support of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, a group that doesn’t have to disclose how much it raises or spends.
Hensley had the support of education groups and retired state employees.
House District 44
Ballard, D-Lawrence, won another two-year term representing Kansas House District 44 by defeating Republican political newcomer Patrick Bengtson, 71 percent to 29 percent with 15 of 16 precincts reporting.
Ballard, first elected in 1992, said she will work to try to restore cuts that have been made over the past several years to public schools. “We are going to have a long conversation on school funding,” Ballard said.
Bengtson, an attorney from Lawrence, was making his first run for office. He also campaigned on the need for more school funding and said the district needed a new voice.
He congratulated Ballard, thanked his supporters and said he hoped that during the next legislation session “more common ground can be found.”
House District 10
Democrat John Wilson, of Lawrence, defeated Republican Erica Anderson, of Baldwin City, in House District 10.
The district has been represented by state Rep. TeriLois Gregory, a Republican.
In redrawing the district boundaries, federal judges removed Franklin County precincts and made the district wholly in Douglas County.
Gregory then moved from Baldwin City to Ottawa and launched an unsuccessful run for the GOP nomination in the 59th House District. Gregory had endorsed Anderson.