Opinion: Some insights into Kansas political trends

Over the past several years public opinion polls have gotten a lot of heat — some of it deserved, some of it not — for not accurately predicting election results.

Public opinion is only as accurate as the sample of voters polled and what those voters are willing to tell pollsters. As such, election outcomes will always be the best gauge of public opinion.

But this year, the Kansas polls were mostly correct.

What insights do this year’s results and exit polls give us about political trends in Kansas?

First, moderate Democratic candidates can be competitive in, and even win, statewide races. We knew this already, but now we know that this can hold true even with an unpopular Democratic president in office.

This year the polls told us that some statewide races would be close. They were right. Once all the votes are counted, Laura Kelly will narrowly win reelection.

The attorney general race was also close.

Both Democrats in those races outperformed Joe Biden’s 2020 vote share. Even before the election, Kelly’s approval rating was much higher than Biden’s, which boded well for the governor.

Exit polling conducted in Kansas by Fox News tells an intriguing story about Kansas voters.

Most of the negative campaign ads against Kelly — and other Democratic candidates — tried to use the president as a liability, and the exit polling shows Biden has a 63% disapproval rating in the state.

But a majority of Kelly voters said their opinion of President Biden had nothing to do with their vote. And interestingly enough, 11% of Kelly voters said they used their vote to express opposition to Biden.

Even among voters who expressed moderate disapproval of the president, 57% voted for Laura Kelly.

This suggests that the so-called “Kansas Democrat playbook” — where statewide Democratic candidates distance themselves from national Democrats, especially unpopular ones — still works and we’ll likely see it used in years to come.

Second, Kansans seem to like the status quo in Topeka, at least when it comes to how the branches of government interact with each other.

While Republicans will decisively control the Legislature, and Laura Kelly held on to the governorship, Amendment 1 appears to have failed. This amendment, also known as the “legislative veto,” would have dramatically shifted the balance of power had it passed. It would have changed our system of checks and balances as we know it.

While the vote was close, it looks like the amendment will fail by a narrow margin.

I suspect this outcome was somewhat motivated by confusing ballot language, but also by an age-old reluctance to give any branch of government more power than they currently have.

The Statehouse races certainly seem to maintain the status quo. Democrats flipped one House seat in Johnson County, but still fell two seats short of blocking the Republican supermajority in the chamber.

The retention of all seven Supreme Court justices is another testament to the status quo. Generally, justices are retained but this was a different year where those races could have been much more politicized than usual due to conservative backlash to the Hodes decision, which established abortion as a right protected by the state constitution.

Kansans certainly gave us some nail-biters this year with several races too close to call as Election Day came to a close. We’ll probably continue to see close races in the years to come as Kansans grapple with a rapidly changing political environment.

— Alexandra Middlewood is an assistant professor of political science at Wichita State University.


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