The same groups that used the wedge issue of Obamacare to unseat moderate Republican senators two years ago are targeting several House members for defeat in Tuesday’s GOP primary.
But this time around, their efforts are being countered by groups that have organized to reverse the recent conservative tide in Kansas politics. The Kansas Values Institute and the Kansas Traditional Republican Majority are spending tens of thousands of dollars to defend moderate Republican Statehouse incumbents against charges that they failed to support conservative-led efforts to transfer control of federal health care programs to the state, block Medicaid expansion and repeal the state’s renewable energy standards.
Targets of the ouster effort include Republican House members Barbara Bollier, Mission Hills; Stephanie Clayton, Overland Park; Blaine Finch, Ottawa; Russ Jennings, Lakin; Tom Sloan, Lawrence; and Kent Thompson, Iola.
The Kansas Chamber and the Koch Industries-backed group Americans for Prosperity are the main players in the effort, just as they were in 2012 when they succeeded in defeating Senate President Steve Morris and several other moderate GOP state senators. They are supporting Neil Melton, a Prairie Village banker, against Bollier; Jennifer Flood, a software consultant from Overland Park, against Clayton; Bob Fluke, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party from Ottawa, against Finch; Stan Rice, a marketing director for a rural telephone and cable company who lives in Lakin, against Jennings; Jeremy Ryan Pierce, from Lawrence, against Sloan; and, Chad VanHouden, from Chanute, against Thompson.
“It’s not about advocating the election or defeat of certain candidates, it’s about getting our issues out,” said Jeff Glendening, director of Americans for AFP-Kansas. “That’s what we did back in 2012. We were able to get our issues out about why free markets work, why we need limited government in the state and why some of those people, like Senate President Steve Morris and others, weren’t supportive of limited government policies.”
The chamber’s political action committee has spent nearly $197,000 since January to support the legislative candidates it has endorsed, according to reports filed with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission. As a nonprofit educational organization, AFP isn’t required to file campaign finance reports, and Glendening declined to say how much the organization had spent in the primary.
Obamacare still a potent wedge issue
Many of the moderate Republicans being targeted voted against repeated attempts to repeal renewable energy standards. Repeal was a top priority of AFP and the state chamber. But the moderates’ votes against two bills aimed at “stopping Obamacare” also are being singled out in the fliers.
One of the bills prohibited Gov. Sam Brownback from expanding Medicaid eligibility without legislative approval. The bill wasn’t necessary because Brownback, a strong opponent of the federal health reform law, had given no indication he was preparing to act on his own. Even so, the bill gave conservative lawmakers another opportunity to register their opposition to Obamacare.
An AFP flier mailed to voters in Bollier’s district characterized her vote against the measure as a vote to “expand Obamacare.” It went on to charge that Bollier had an expansion plan that “would cost the state an additional $1.1 billion.”
Calling the mailer “incredibly misleading,” Bollier acknowledged that she favors Medicaid expansion. But she said neither she nor anyone else had a plan because House leadership blocked discussion of the issue in committee and on the floor.
“I don’t understand why we can’t even talk about it,” she said. “That is not good government.”
The $1.1 billion figure, she said, was the Brownback administration’s estimate of the amount that expansion would cost the state over 10 years.
The AFP flier also criticized Bollier for voting against what it called “vital legislation to put health care choice and access back in the hands of Kansans.”
That was a reference to Bollier’s vote against a bill authorizing Kansas’ membership in a multi-state health care compact. If Congress approves the compact, member states could take over management of several federal health care programs, including Medicare.
Many saw the issue as another symbolic vote against Obamacare, but Bollier feared a state takeover of Medicare could jeopardize the benefits of the more than 450,000 Kansas seniors enrolled in the program.
“My No. 1 concern about it was that it took Medicare out of the hands of the federal government, placing it into a state-administered program,” she said. “That may work. But when I asked the carrier of the bill what had been done in the state of Kansas to prepare to administer this huge program that so many of our seniors rely on, the answer was nothing.”
Glendening said AFP believes that Kansas and the other compact states could do a better job of running Medicare.
“We need to have health care decisions made here in the state of Kansas,” he said. “Washington has not done a good job of managing our health care.”
A flier from the Kansas Values Institute praising Bollier for fighting to “protect Medicare for Kansas seniors” arrived in voters’ mailboxes about the same time as the AFP piece. It was no accident. The institute is spending thousands to support moderate Republicans targeted by conservative groups.
“It’s time to push back against that and provide an alternative voice in the mix,” said Ryan Wright, executive director of KVI and treasurer of the Kansas Traditional Republican Majority PAC.
Confusing array of players and disclosure rules
Like AFP, the Kansas Values Institute is a nonprofit educational organization that isn’t required to report its expenditures, and Wright declined to disclose them. However, it’s known that KVI had at least $120,000 to spend in the primary cycle after receiving contributions in that amount from the Kansas National Education Association PAC between March and July of this year.
The teachers’ union also contributed $20,000 to the Kansas Jobs PAC, which in turn contributed $39,500 to the Kansas Traditional Republican Majority PAC, which has spent more than $40,000 since July 1 on fliers supporting moderate Republicans challenging or being challenged by conservatives endorsed by the chamber and AFP.
The activities of KVI are drawing fire from some GOP officials, who charge it has no business meddling in Republican primaries given that Dan Watkins, a prominent Lawrence Democrat, is the chairman of its board.
Late last week, Helen Van Etten, a national committeewoman for the state Republican Party and Brownback appointee to the Kansas Board of Regents, characterized KVI as a Democratic front group.
“As Republicans across the state head to the polls, I believe it is critical they know that members of Obama’s campaign team are spending scores of thousands of dollars to play in our Republican primaries,” Van Etten said.
Over the weekend, Michael Powell, chairman of the Leavenworth County Republican Party, forwarded Van Etten’s alert to his members and added his own warning.
“The Obama campaign machine is attempting to influence Kansas Republican primary campaigns by cleverly attempting to align more left-leaning moderate candidates with popular conservative candidates,” Powell said. “It is important to know the credentials of the organizations contacting you or sending you materials.”
Wright, a lifelong Republican who once worked for 2nd District Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins, said KVI is giving voters the information they need to weigh the differences among candidates on a host of critical issues.
“Whatever we’re mailing out, we are citing the legislative record,” Wright said. “Unlike these other shadowy groups that are operating within our state, we don’t just lob accusations willy-nilly.”
Jim McLean is executive editor of KHI News Service, an editorially independent reporting program of the Kansas Health Institute.