Kansas House to see leadership challenges in both parties

photo by: Peter Hancock

In this file photo from May 3, 2017, Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, left, and Majority Leader Don Hineman brief House Republicans about a tax bill to roll back many of the income tax cuts that Gov. Sam Brownback championed in 2012. Both Ryckman and Hineman now face challenges from fellow-Republicans for their leadership positions.

TOPEKA – Newly elected and re-elected members of the Kansas House will meet in Topeka on Dec. 3 to elect leadership teams in both parties, and both the top Republican and Democratic leaders will face internal challenges this year.

On the Republican side, conservative House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., of Olathe, faces an unusual challenge from a hard-line conservative, Rep.-elect Owen Donohoe, a former legislator from Shawnee who is returning in January after a six-year absence from the Statehouse.

And on the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, faces a challenge from a former minority leader, Rep. Tom Sawyer, also of Wichita.

Republicans also have contested races for other leadership posts, including speaker pro tem and majority leader, the outcome of which could determine how successful Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly will be in getting her agenda through the Legislature for the next two years.

Both the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House elect new leadership teams after each election. This time, though, while the partisan split in the House will remain as it has been for the last two years – 85 Republicans; 40 Democrats – the makeup of each caucus will be quite different.

Balance of power shifts

For the last two years, there had been rough parity between the conservative and moderate wings of the Republican caucus, which split roughly 44-41 in favor of conservatives. Because of that, the two wings split the leadership posts, with conservative Ryckman winning the speaker’s post and moderate Don Hineman, of Dighton, serving as majority leader.

But the balance shifted in this year’s elections, when conservatives gained significant ground, both by defeating moderate incumbents in the Aug. 7 primary and by defeating some incumbent Democrats in the Nov. 6 general election. Some estimates put the split now at roughly 51-34 in the conservatives’ favor.

Democrats, on the other hand, lost some of their members in the general election, but also managed to take seats away from a few Republicans, particularly in Douglas and Johnson counties.

House speaker

Ryckman has served as House speaker the past two years and, according to GOP sources, is generally thought to have a good chance of winning another term. But he ruffled a few conservative feathers when, during the 2017 session, he and a few other conservatives joined with moderate Republicans and Democrats to override then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a bill reversing Brownback’s controversial tax policies.

Donohoe previously served in the House from 2007 through 2013. He did not run for re-election in 2012, and he tried unsuccessfully to return in the 2016 races, but lost the GOP primary that year in a three-way race. This year, incumbent Rep. Shelee Brim, a moderate, chose not to run for re-election, and Donohoe won both a contested primary and the general election.

While he was in the Legislature, though, Donohoe co-sponsored bills to repeal a law allowing certain undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, as well as a bill imposing new reporting requirements about late-term and so-called “partial-birth” abortions.

Speaker pro tem

The race for the second most powerful seat in the House, speaker pro tem, is an open contest this year because the incumbent, Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, was just elected secretary of state.

Two people are vying for the job this year: Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, and Rep. Kyle Hoffman, R-Coldwater.

Finch, an attorney, has served the last two years as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee as well as the Rules Committee.

The Rules Committee post is often crucial during debates on the House floor because that panel rules on procedural challenges, such as whether a proposed amendment is germane to the underlying bill or whether a particular motion is out of order.

Hoffman, a farmer and rancher, does not currently chair any committees, but he serves on a number of influential committees, including Appropriations, the K-12 Education Budget Committee; and the joint KanCare oversight committee.

Majority leader

The office of majority leader is largely responsible for deciding which bills come to the floor of the House for debate and which ones don’t.

Because of the gains conservatives made in the 2018 elections, many observers see Hineman, a farmer and rancher from southwest Kansas, as the most vulnerable of the current leadership team. He faces challenges this year from two conservatives: Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita insurance agent; and Rep. Ron Highland, a retired veterinarian from Wamego.

Hawkins has spent the last two years as chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, where he was instrumental in blocking attempts by moderates and Democrats to move Medicaid expansion bills to the full House.

Gov.-elect Kelly has said passage of Medicaid expansion will be a high priority in her administration. So if Hawkins is elected majority leader, that could be seen as a clear signal that the more conservative House will strongly resist Kelly on that point.

Highland is currently vice chairman of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, which handles most bills dealing with hot-button social issues such as abortion and gun rights. He is also a former chairman of the House Education Committee.

Minority leader

Jim Ward, an attorney, narrowly won the Democratic leadership race following the 2016 elections over then-leader Rep. Tom Burroughs, of Kansas City, Kan. Over the next two sessions, he was instrumental in forging coalitions to pass bills reversing the Brownback-era tax cuts and expanding Medicaid, although on the latter, the coalition wasn’t strong enough to override Brownback’s veto.

Also in 2017, he announced plans to run for governor. But he withdrew in May 2018, citing fundraising woes and the need to spend time recruiting more House candidates for the 2018 races.

But this year’s elections were not kind to Democratic House candidates in Kansas. In a year when Democrats made gains not only in Congress but also in state legislative races around the country, Kansas Democrats only broke even. And along the way, they even lost some of their incumbents, such as Reps. Ed Trimmer in Winfield, Adam Lusker in Frontenac, and Eber Phelps in Hays.

Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, said in an interview that this year’s election performance disappointed a number of Democrats. And so now Ward faces a challenge from Rep. Tom Sawyer.

Sawyer, an accountant, has served a number of nonconsecutive terms in the House, dating back to the 1980s, and is the only current member who has ever served at different times as both majority leader and minority leader.

Sawyer stepped down as minority leader in 1998 to run for governor, largely because the only other Democrat who had filed to challenge incumbent Republican Gov. Bill Graves for re-election that year was the anti-gay crusader Fred Phelps, of Topeka. Although he won the Democratic primary easily that year, Sawyer ended up losing the general election to Graves, 73-23 percent.

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