The Important Legislative Races In Kansas You Probably Haven’t Heard About

Nov 7, 2016

It’s a campaign without ads. There are no TV spots or mailers. The only people voting are the 165 Kansas lawmakers choosing their new leaders.

“Leadership races are the most inside of inside baseball,” says University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis.

Loomis says you almost have to be a legislative nerd to have heard of the candidates for Kansas House speaker or Senate president, but they get to make committee assignments and control the chamber.

“These are very important positions. You’re investing a tremendous amount of power in these leaders,” says Loomis.

Rep. Russ Jennings (far right), with Kansas Senate 39 candidates Republican John Doll (far left) and Democrat Zach Worf, at a candidate forum in Garden City ahead of the August primaries. Jennings was unopposed both for the primary and the general election.
Credit Amy Jeffries / KCUR

Russ Jennings is a second-term Republican House member from Lakin out in Western Kansas. He’s hit the trail seeking the job of speaker

“I’ve been traveling the state the last couple of weeks meeting with legislators and candidates to become members of the Kansas House,” Jennings says, “visiting with them a little bit about my vision for how the House might operate in the future and getting to know those folks.”

The current speaker, Ray Merrick, is retiring.

Jennings says his vision for taking over entails hearing all viewpoints when it comes to big issues like the state budget, the tax system and Medicaid expansion. He believes that hasn’t happened enough in recent years.

“Everything has been done to squelch an honest discussion about where the state is at and to have a conversation about creative and innovative solutions to address those deficiencies that exist,” says Jennings.

The current House majority leader, Jene Vickrey, also says he’s running for speaker. He didn’t respond to a request for comment, but has said his first priority is the fall election.

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Republican Ron Ryckman, is also widely expected to be a candidate for Speaker. 

But It’s not just the House that will have a leadership election. Last month, current Senate President Susan Wagle stepped up to a lectern surrounded by current senators and candidates for the chamber.

To Kansans who expressed their frustration in the Legislature with their primary votes, Wagle says she has a plan. She says it will hold down state spending, make taxes fair and flat, and ensure high-quality education.

“Let me assure you. We have heard. We hear what you are saying,” says Wagle.

An interesting mix of Republicans has signed on to her list of policy priorities. The group includes conservative members and more moderate candidates like Ed Berger, who beat Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce in the primaries.

Bruce had been planning to challenge Wagle for her job, but now it looks like she’ll be unopposed.

Wagle says she rolled out the list of policy priorities to help Republicans keep seats in the Senate, not for the sake of keeping her own job as Senate president.

“My goal is to bring back the majority. I’m really not worried about leadership races right now, because there’s not going to be a race for Senate president if I don’t have a majority of Republicans,” says Wagle.

However, having a working relationship with both moderate and more conservative members of the chamber can only help her keep her job.

“She sees that her caucus has changed very significantly and I think she is trying to catch up to where that change is heading,” says Paul Davis, who was the top Democrat in the Kansas House the last time there was a majority made up of Democrats and moderate Republicans.

There could be a majority in the chambers made up of moderate-leaning Republicans and Democrats again next year. But those groups did not come together to elect a coalition speaker when Davis was in the House and he’s not holding his breath now.

“I wouldn’t completely close the door on that, but I think that it’s probably unlikely that you’ll see a coalition in either the House or the Senate,” says Davis

Rep. Russ Jennings says in his campaign for speaker he will not be seeking votes from Democratic lawmakers.

“I think it would be very disruptive and perhaps more damaging to try to create a coalition that would come in in January and overrule the decision of the caucus. I have no intention to pursue that path. I will work at doing this within the Republican caucus,” says Jennings.

The Democratic and Republican caucuses will meet to elect new leadership before the 2017 session kicks off in January.

Stephen Koranda is a reporter for Kansas Public Radio, which is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas this year. You can follow Stephen on Twitter @kprkoranda.