The stage is set for what many believe could be a pivotal 2016 election season in Kansas.
With campaigns for all 165 seats in the Legislature, the opportunity for change is reflected in the roster of candidates certified by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach after Wednesday’s filing deadline.
For the first time in decades, Democrats, who currently hold only eight seats in the Kansas Senate, have fielded candidates in all 40 Senate districts. Several moderate House Republicans who survived stiff challenges from conservatives in the 2014 primary are running unopposed this year.
“Democrats and moderate Republicans, at least in terms of candidate recruitments, are certainly on offense and not defense this year,” says Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist who has studied voting patterns across the state.
The electoral climate favors candidates not tied to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his budget and tax policies, Miller says.
“It’s no secret, we have multiple polls this year that show — despite what anyone says to refute it — that Brownback is pretty unpopular,” he says. “And the headlines coming out of Topeka are not positive. So, if you’re a Democrat or a moderate Republican, you might be able to take advantage of that.”
The state’s continuing budget mess, compounded by Wednesday’s news that May tax receipts were nearly $74 million short of revised estimates, has created opportunities for Democrats and moderate Republicans to regain ground lost to conservative Republicans who seized control of the Legislature in 2012 and solidified it in 2014, Miller says.
“Whether that happens will be determined on a race-by-race basis,” he says.
A total of 354 candidates are running for House and Senate seats, down overall from 399 in 2012. But, the 150 Democrats running for the Legislature exceeds the 140 fielded by the party in 2012, while the number of Republicans candidates has fallen from 259 to 204.
In the Senate contests, 47 Democrats and 53 Republicans are competing for 40 seats. On the House side, 151 Republicans and 103 Democrats are vying for 125 seats.
The retirements of several veteran GOP lawmakers are a contributing factor. Conservative Republican senators Les Donovan, Mitch Holmes, Ralph Ostmeyer, Michael O’Donnell and Garrett Love are not seeking re-election. Neither are the top two GOP leaders in the House: Speaker Ray Merrick and Speaker Pro Tem Peggy Mast. They head a list of more than a dozen House Republicans who are stepping down.
Most of the Republicans who are not running again were reliable supporters of Brownback. Many held leadership positions or chaired important committees. Mast, along with Senate Education Committee Chair Steve Abrams, is among a handful who withdrew only hours before the filing deadline.
Rep. Tom Moxley, a moderate Republican from Council Grove who is not seeking re-election for personal reasons, thinks many of his conservative colleagues aren’t returning because they know the state’s budget problems will be difficult to solve.
“I think they’re bailing,” Moxley says. “They’ve seen what they’ve done and they don’t want to fix it.”
Rep. Steven Anthimides isn’t bailing, even though he may be more conservative than the voters in his Wichita district. His is one of several swing districts that Miller identified based on recent gubernatorial and presidential elections.
Anthimides acknowledges that the state is facing big problems. But he says voters can trust him to help fix them.
“I don’t like to take blame but I will take responsibility,” Anthimides says. “You know, we’re all here for the same reason. I don’t think anyone is elected to ruin Kansas. We’re all here to make it better.”
Jim McLean is executive editor of KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmckhi.