GOP resistance makes rocky start for Kansas’ new Democratic governor
photo by: Nick Krug
TOPEKA — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s election created a national buzz about a possible shift to the left in Kansas politics, but many Republicans remain unimpressed and feel little pressure to take up her big initiatives.
The GOP-dominated Legislature has yet to have committee hearings on her plan to expand the state’s Medicaid health coverage for the needy. It has ignored her call to approve an increase in public school funding by the end of this month. A key part of her budget already appears dead . Top Republicans are pursuing a tax relief bill she considers fiscally reckless.
She and other Democrats believe her victory represented a repudiation of Republican predecessors’ policies. Three current lawmakers from the Kansas City area, where Kelly ran especially well, switched to the Democratic Party in December, drawing even more attention to what had been seen as a reliably red state.
Yet many Republican legislators treat Kelly’s victory as a fluke. She won with 48 percent of the vote and her political strength was concentrated in relatively few populous counties. More-local races left the Legislature more conservative, and the party switching didn’t change the balance of power because Democrats attracted GOP moderates likely to help Kelly anyway.
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm for her governorship,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican.
Democrats hold 23 governor’s offices after picking up seven in last year’s midterm elections as they tapped discontent with President Donald Trump, particularly in suburbs. Victories in governor’s races in Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin broke GOP strangleholds on those state governments.
Kelly and her top advisers have said repeatedly that voters elected her to “fix” state government after Republican policies wrecked it. She said earlier this month, “I’m very confident that the people of Kansas are behind me.”
“Gov. Kelly won election in a Republican state. I say that’s a mandate,” said state Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City Democrat.
But Republicans repeatedly note Kelly’s failure to get a majority of the vote against the conservative GOP nominee, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, with independent candidate Greg Orman taking about 6.5 percent. Also, Kelly carried only nine of the state’s 105 counties.
Former U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, who lost his seat in his Kansas City-area congressional district last year, said Democrats are “misreading the tea leaves.”
“I don’t see this as an endorsement of the more liberal policies that Gov. Kelly is suggesting,” said Yoder, also a former Kansas House member. “The role of the Republican legislators is to represent the traditional Republican values that have made Kansas strong, keeping taxes down, small government, a focus on business.”
Republicans’ views about Kelly’s victory are partly shaped by an ongoing post-mortem of Kobach’s candidacy within the GOP.
Kobach barely unseated Gov. Jeff Colyer in the GOP primary and has since faced Republican grumbling that he ran a lackluster general-election campaign. Kobach’s vocal advocacy of tough immigration laws and take-no-prisoners style of conservatism alienated GOP moderates.
Some Republicans contend the more affable Colyer would have given Kelly a tougher race.
“I think she won because a lot of people were voting against Kobach,” said state Rep. Kyle Hoffman, a GOP conservative from southwest Kansas.
Republicans retained their legislative supermajorities and didn’t see their small net loss of seats until the party switching in December. GOP conservatives picked up at least half a dozen seats in the House and one in the Senate at the expense of moderates.
“The center of Kansas politics was somewhat hollowed out,” said state Rep. Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from western Kansas ousted as House majority leader after the election.
Many Republicans contend that the collective outcome of dozens of legislative races demonstrates that voters aren’t enthusiastic about Kelly’s agenda.
“It’s the legislative elections that are the more indicative of what is going on in the state,” said Sen. Ty Masterson, a conservative Wichita-area Republican who has called Kelly’s election “a tragic collision of timing.”
Republican resistance has meant a rocky start for Kelly’s administration. The House last week rejected a plan from Kelly to reduce the state’s annual payments to its public pension system to create breathing room in the budget, with GOP members united. When the Senate approved its tax relief bill earlier this month, most moderates backed it.
The lack of movement on Medicaid expansion is particularly frustrating for Kelly and fellow Democrats.
Her plan revives a bill that passed with bipartisan majorities in 2017, only to be vetoed by then-conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback. Supporters believe a majority of lawmakers still support Medicaid expansion, but opponents hold key leadership posts and committee chairmanships in both chambers, effectively blocking action for now.
The governor sent a letter this week to committee leaders in the House and Senate, asking for hearings on her plan — a courtesy routinely granted in the past, even when lawmakers strongly opposed a governor’s major initiatives.
And Kelly spokeswoman Ashley All said Wednesday: “It is time that lawmakers focus on the issues important to the people of Kansas and stop wasting time and money picking political fights.”
Many Democrats and even some moderate Republicans believe their GOP colleagues are merely posturing at the beginning of Kelly’s administration. Also, the new governor’s power to veto GOP legislation means Republicans can’t write her off.
But Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and Kelly ally, said, “At some point, I think she’s going to have to probably get their attention.”