As dust from primaries settles, depth of conservative losses sets in

TOPEKA — Conservative Republicans in Kansas legislative races suffered heavy losses in Tuesday’s primaries, and if the trends continue through November, they may be in danger of losing effective control of the House and Senate.

That was the assessment Wednesday morning when the full picture of Tuesday’s election results came into focus.

All told, conservatives lost between six and eight seats in the Kansas Senate, depending on how one scores a candidate as moderate or conservative, and between 10 and 13 seats in the Kansas House.

Going into the primaries, many Democrats and moderate Republicans hoped this year’s elections would be a referendum on Gov. Sam Brownback and his conservative allies in the Legislature who have reshaped state government in Kansas for the last six years.

Few people expected that moderates could win enough votes to take over the caucus and elect their own leadership teams. And almost nobody expected them to win enough seats in the Senate to change the balance of power there.

But moderates hoped to win enough seats in the House that, when combined with expected Democratic gains in November, they could put back together the kind of working majorities they had before Brownback’s election.

What happened Tuesday, however, exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations, and may have put conservatives in danger of losing control of both chambers.

“I always thought the numbers were there but I wasn’t expecting this kind of sweep,” University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller said. “I think that whatever gains the Democrats make will determine the difference between moderates having a “legislative veto” by voting with the Democrats to stop legislation Brownback supports versus moderates actually being able to elect leadership and control the agenda.”

Currently, Republicans hold 32 of the 40 seats in the Senate. And of the 32 Republicans, roughly 28 or 29 of them would be classified as “conservative,” depending on the issue.

The six to eight losses they suffered to moderates on Tuesday drops that number down to between 21 and 23. That means if Democrats can pick up a handful more in November, the conservative block in the Senate would no longer have its own majority.

“Most Democratic gains would come at the expense of Brownback Republicans, so that would change the math in the Republican caucuses on leadership votes,” Miller said.

Much of the damage occurred in Johnson County where moderate groups motivated primarily around the issue of public school funding backed candidates who took down two conservative senators, Jeff Melcher and Greg Smith, and four conservative House members: Craig McPherson; Brett Hildabrand; Rob Bruchman and Jerry Lunn.

But the anti-conservative wave extended far beyond Johnson County, even as far as southwest Kansas where Sen. Larry Powell was ousted by a moderate, Rep. John Doll, both of Garden City.

Perhaps the biggest upset was in Reno County where Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce of Nickerson was ousted from his seat by Edwin E. Berger.

Other conservative victims of Tuesday’s primaries included Sens. Tom Arpke of Salina, and Forrest Knox of Altoona.

Moderates also made gains in open Senate seats that are being vacated by conservatives who are retiring. In southeast Kansas, for example, where Senate Vice President Jeff King of Independence stepped down, Dan Goddard, a retired businessman and former Parsons city commissioner, edged out Rep. Virgil Peck of Tyro.

Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley called Tuesday’s results “a repudiation of Brownback and his policies.

“This was very evident in the defeat of Republican incumbent Senators, including the Senate Majority Leader, who have rubber-stamped his agenda over the past six years,” Hensley said.

For his part, though, Brownback did not view Tuesday’s primary vote as a referendum on him or his administration. Instead, he saw it as part of a larger national trend.

“Kansas is not immune from the wide-spread anti-incumbency sentiment we have seen across the nation this election season,” his spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said. “Governor Brownback looks forward to working with strong Republican majorities in the legislature to make Kansas the best place in America to raise a family and grow a business.”

But Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, took a subtle dig at Brownback, suggesting the public was not satisfied with his performance.

“Too many Kansans still feel that the sun is not rising for them and their families, despite what some leaders tell them,” Wagle said, referencing a slogan used frequently in Brownback’s own 2014 re-election campaign.

She also said she is confident that going into the general elections, “Republicans will unite this fall to keep Kansas conservative.”