In GOP primaries for Kansas House, conservatives look for a comeback

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The House of Representatives chamber of the Kansas Statehouse is pictured July 23, 2014 in Topeka.

TOPEKA – Conservative Republicans, including some with backing from the Kansas Chamber’s political action committee, appear aimed at retaking ground they lost in the 2016 elections by challenging moderates in the upcoming primaries on Tuesday.

Conservatives suffered significant damage in 2016, especially in the House, where many lost their seats in the primaries to more moderate Republicans. Still more conservatives lost to Democrats in the general election. In fact, Democrats took out 14 Republicans in the general election that year, but lost one of their own seats, for a net gain of 13.

That election shifted the balance of power in the House and helped to build the coalition of Democrats and (mostly) moderate Republicans that produced 88 votes last year to override Brownback’s veto of the tax bill that essentially reversed course on the tax policies he had championed five years earlier.

That override vote also included some House members who are generally considered in the conservative camp, such as House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., of Olathe, and Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Troy Waymaster, of Bunker Hill.

Still, it wouldn’t have been possible if Democrats and moderate Republicans hadn’t made the gains they did in 2016. But as the 2018 primaries approach, many of those moderate Republicans now find themselves facing primary challenges from candidates who have the backing of the Kansas Chamber PAC.

Of the 49 Republicans who voted in favor of the override, 40 are running for re-election this year. Of those, 16 face challenges in the Aug. 7 primaries, and the Kansas Chamber PAC is backing 10 of those 16 challengers.

Brownback’s veto was overridden with 88 votes. It takes a two-thirds majority, or 84 votes in the House, to override a veto, so if the conservatives succeed in winning five or more of those races, that would be enough to prevent a similar override in the future, assuming there are no other significant changes in the balance of power this year.

One of those races involves the 42nd District, which includes Eudora and portions of eastern Douglas County. There, the Chamber PAC is endorsing Republican Lance Neelly, of Tonganoxie, over incumbent Rep. Jim Karleskint, also of Tonganoxie.

Those other nine races where the Chamber is backing challengers running against those who supported the veto override include:

• District 8, in Overland Park, where Rep. Patty Markley faces Chris Croft in the primary.

• District 13, in southeast Kansas, where Rep. Larry Hibbard, of Toronto, is being challenged by Londa Tindle, of Fredonia.

• District 28, in Leawood, where Rep. Joy Koesten is being challenged by Kellie Warren.

• District 74, in Hesston, where Rep. Don Schroeder faces a challenge from Stephen Owens.

• District 75, in El Dorado, where Rep. Mary Martha Good is challenged by Will Carpenter.

• District 80, in south-central Kansas, where Rep. Anita Judd-Jenkins, of Arkansas City, faces a challenge from Bill Rhiley, of Wellington.

• District 104, where Rep. Steven Becker, of Buhler, faces Paul Waggoner, of Hutchinson.

• District 107, where Rep. Susan Concannon, of Beloit, faces Sam J. Sacco, of Concordia.

• And District 113, in western Kansas, where Rep. Greg Lewis, of St. John, is challenged by Brett Fairchild, also of St. John.

Chamber spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said in an email that the Chamber PAC makes its endorsements based on a number of issues, including an incumbent’s voting history throughout his or her career. And indeed, the PAC has made endorsements in several other races that don’t involve incumbents who voted in favor of the override.

“Like other organizations, unions and trade associations endorsing candidates this primary election, the Kansas Chamber PAC’s primary endorsements are based on several factors including, but not limited to, candidate surveys and scorecards based on legislators’ voting history and public statements relating to policies and issues important to the Kansas business community,” Jones-Sontag said.

She said those issues include such things as “legal reform, the school funding constitutional amendment, fair regulations and the cost of doing business in Kansas.”

There are also a number of races in which incumbents who voted in favor of the override face primary challenges but the Chamber PAC is making no endorsement.

Still, the influence and money that the Chamber PAC can bring to bear could have a significant impact in those 10 races, and if the PAC is successful in at least six of them, it could reduce the coalition’s size to the point where it no longer has the strength to override a veto.

That could be important, depending on who eventually wins the governor’s race in November. Republican Kris Kobach, the current secretary of state, has vowed that if elected, he would both cut taxes again and cut spending by reducing the size of state government.

But Kansas House Democratic Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, said even if all of those incumbents lose, that is not a guarantee that the Democrat-moderate coalition will lose ground. He said that Democrats are fielding strong candidates in a number of those races, including the 42nd District, while also targeting several other conservatives on their own.


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