Kansas voters rebuked legislative allies of Gov. Sam Brownback and his reckless tax experiment in the August primary elections and again last Tuesday in the general election. Forty legislative seats currently held or contested by backers of the experiment changed hands, 25 going to centrist Republicans, 15 to newly elected Democrats.
Centrist Republicans gained 16 seats in the House, nine seats in the Senate, and will likely chose the next speaker and majority leader of the House, though that outcome depends on how a handful of newly elected Republicans line up in those leadership races. Senate President Susan Wagle will likely hold onto her post, even though her caucus will be significantly rebalanced with centrists.
Democrats gained 12 seats in the House, one in the Senate. Thirty-two incumbent Democrats held onto their seats but lost in one open contest they currently hold. Democrats improved their standing in both houses but remain a clear minority, 31 to 9 in the Senate, 85 to 40 in the House.
Brownback’s principal champion for his tax experiment, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, took a shellacking in these elections. Centrist Republicans deposed 18 candidates endorsed by the chamber in the primary. Democrats defeated 12 more in the general election, including seven incumbents. Over half of the chamber’s anointed candidates were defeated.
Brownback and his legislative allies were rebuked on court retention, as well, a good indication that voters believe education funding has been shortchanged. An unprecedented amount of dark money flowed into the campaign to oust the justices, but all were retained by safe margins.
The governor professed neutrality in these races, but that was a charade. He has spent the last five years trying to undermine the independence of the judiciary. His surrogates managed the anti-retention campaign that was funded in part by his own PAC money.
What does all of this mean? State finance and school funding now become front and center in the upcoming legislative session. Given the financial mess left by Brownback and his far right coalition, the challenge will be monumental and will call for negotiation among three parties of roughly equal strength: newly emboldened centrist Republicans, minority Democrats with slightly improved numbers, and the remaining Republicans whose votes created the mess.
However, the stranglehold of the radical right has been broken. Centrist Republicans will not be operating in an ideological fog and should be expected to address state finance issues with realism and common sense. Many other Republicans who backed the experiment have been chastened by the Brownback brand and are seeking to escape that association. Democrats want to end the experiment.
As voters have experienced the damage inflicted by ideological folly, Brownback has become toxic in state politics. Yet, he remains in the governor’s chair for two more years and will likely cling to his discredited experiment at all costs. Legislators may have to rally the votes necessary to override the governor in charting a new course on state finance and school funding.
— H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.