Conservatives may be tough to shake off

Ordinarily, Chapman Rackaway, an assistant political science professor at Fort Hays State University, would peg incumbent State Board of Education member Connie Morris’s chances for re-election somewhere between slim and none.

Morris, after all, saw fit to spend six nights at the ritzy Fontainbleau Hilton Resort in Miami Beach, billing taxpayers $339 a night – not to mention the $150 she spent on meals or the two taxi rides that cost $147.

The story made headlines across the state. And if that weren’t enough, Morris has been at the forefront of a long list of controversies – evolution, sex education, vouchers – that have come to define the contentious schism between the board’s six conservative and four moderate members.

Political logic says Morris, a conservative, should be in trouble – but that’s a long way from saying she will lose in the Aug. 1 primary, Rackaway said.

“Driving around Hays, I see a lot of yard signs for Sally Cauble (Morris’ primary opponent),” Rackaway said. “But that’s not indicative of what’s happening out in the smaller towns, like Quinter and Hoxie. You get out there and it’s pretty much all Connie Morris.”

The race is too close to call, he said Tuesday.

“Cauble is running a good, aggressive campaign,” Rackaway said, “but an election like this tends to be a referendum on whether the incumbent has done a good enough job – and I’m not hearing people say ‘Connie Morris has done a terrible job.’

“That makes me think (Morris) will win,” he said.

Rackaway wasn’t alone in his assessment:

¢ “I don’t think the state school board race is causing a stir in Garden City – not yet, anyway,” said Rick Atha, Garden City school superintendent.

¢ “Nobody’s come up to me and asked, ‘How should I vote?'” said Don Wells, school superintendent in Scott County. “People aren’t talking about it.”

¢ “People have other things on their minds – like the drought,” said Lakin schools Supt. Randy Steinle.

Turnout is key

Morris isn’t the only conservative board member standing strong in the face of moderate opposition.

“It’s going to be tight,” said Craig Grant. “Turnout is going to be key for us.”

Grant is a Lawrence school board member who’s been on salary with the Kansas Alliance for Education the past six months rallying moderate voters to turn out Morris and her conservative colleagues.

Grant said the alliance has sent “mailers” to registered Republicans in Morris’ district. On Sunday, volunteers called 250 voters in the district. More calls and mailings are planned.

“We targeting Republicans who’ve voted in the general elections but for whatever reason, haven’t voted in the primaries,” he said. “Those are the people we’re trying our best to get out.”

Historically, conservative Republicans have fared better in low-turnout primaries than moderates.

In Wichita, Cindy Duckett is campaigning for the five conservatives on the Aug. 1 ballot.

“I don’t think we’re going to lose any seats,” she said. “As we’ve seen before, I think conservative voters are motivated; moderates aren’t.”

And why is that?

“Where do conservatives gather?” Duckett said. “They gather in church. They meet, they talk, they get motivated. Now, where do moderates meet?”

She paused.

“That’s just it,” Duckett said. “They don’t. They may go to church, but they’re not motivated by church.”

Moderates not out of it

Still, Grant said he remains “cautiously optimistic” about the primary chances of the five moderate candidates – four newcomers, one incumbent.

“If we can win three of the five races, we’ll have a majority on the board,” he said. “If we win two, it’ll be tied, 5-5.”

Currently, six of the 10 board members are conservatives. Three of the six are up for re-election; one, Iris Van Meter, rural Thayer, chose not to run again.

The western half of Douglas County is represented by Bill Wagnon, a moderate and Democrat from Topeka. He is not up for re-election.

The eastern half is represented by Janet Waugh, a moderate Democrat from Kansas City, Kan.

Waugh is opposed in the Democratic primary by Jesse Hall, an employee of the Kansas City, Mo., school district.

Hall, a former NBA referee, said he supports the state board’s conservative agenda and has received financial backing from intelligent design proponents.

On evolution, he said: “The whole idea is to get kids to think outside the box, to be more creative in their thinking.”

On opt-in sex education, he said: “I think parents should be more involved in school, I think they should have the final say.”

The winner – Hall or Waugh – will be unopposed in the general election.

In the four other races, the winner of the Republican primary will face a Democratic challenger in the Nov. 7 general election.

“We get two shots at them,” Grant said.