What We’re Watching For On Election Night In Kansas

Nov 8, 2016

At the end of the balloting today, the complexion of both the Kansas Legislature and the state’s highest court could be radically different.

There’s less suspense about the top of the ticket, at least as far as Kansas goes. Unlike the razor thin margins in some presidential battleground states, polls show Republican Donald Trump well ahead of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the reliably-red Sunflower State.

And with the exception of the surprisingly spirited contest in the 3rd Congressional District between Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder and Democratic challenger Jay Sidie, races for the U.S. Senate and House, all currently held by Republicans, don’t appear competitive.

Further down the ballot, anti-incumbent sentiment drove the outcome of state legislative races in the August primaries. There is no reliable public polling to indicate the extent to which that will carry over into the general elections. But, it’s plausible the trend will continue given recent polls have again ranked Republican Sam Brownback as the nation’s least popular governor.

Shifts in the state Senate

Democrats are betting on a one-two punch that could allow them to join with moderate Republicans in a coalition majority in the 40-member Kansas Senate on certain issues like the LLC tax exemption or school funding.

In the primaries, six Republican members of the Senate were ousted by more moderate challengers. Moderates also claimed three open seats vacated by conservative Republicans who chose not to run for re-election.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley isn’t alone in thinking that Democrats are well positioned to add to those moderate gains.

“I’ve been telling people we could pick up between three and eight seats,” says Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

Currently, Democrats hold only eight of the Senate’s 40 seats. Many observers expect them to hold on to those and to win a contest for an open seat in Wichita. Beyond that, several Democratic challengers appear capable of upsetting Republican incumbents in Johnson County, southeast Kansas and the northeast corner of the state. 

Moderates and conservatives could come together

Anticipating that Democrats could pick up some seats, Senate President Susan Wagle from Wichita, is attempting to unite all of the chamber’s Republicans behind her. She unveiled a set of policy priorities for the caucus in October.

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, says Wagle’s maneuvering will likely to allow her to survive as president of the Senate. But, he says, any gains made by Democrats would give moderate Republicans more power because of the voting coalition they could form.

“Even if that doesn’t mean Wagle is out as leader, it does give moderates more leverage to negotiate on things like (committee) chairmanships and even negotiating on bills,” Miller says.

Following the primary losses of some conservative incumbents, legislators were already predicting renewed discussion of issues like Medicaid expansion and the 2012 income tax cuts championed by Brownback and conservative leaders.

More changes in the state House

Eight Republican House members lost primaries to more moderate challengers. Several more conservatives vying for open seats fell to more moderate candidates in the GOP primaries also.

Now, Democrats are mounting strong challenges to some of those moderate Republican primary winners along with more conservative GOP incumbents. That has Rep. Russ Jennings, a Republican from Lakin who is running to be the next House speaker, predicting substantial gains for both moderate Republicans and Democrats.

He says that Democrats, who currently hold only 28 of the 125 seats in the House, could control as many as 45 by the end of the Election Night tally. They could then form a coalition with the 40 moderate Republicans that Jennings anticipates will be elected and control the House with a veto-proof majority.

“It’s not really good to have one party have tremendous control over the process,” Jennings said during a recent episode of Statehouse Blend, the KCUR podcast.

Unusually hot judicial retention races

In other election years, the down-ballot votes on whether to retain judges have been considered almost a formality — judges are almost always retained.

This year, though, those retention votes are worth watching, because conservative groups have put together a concerted campaign to oust four judges.

What’s at stake there is the ability for Brownback to remake the state’s highest court during his final two years in office. There’s seven justices total, and if the four who are targeted get ousted he would be able to make lifetime appointments for a voting majority of judges who rule on everything from death penalty appeals to school finance cases.

Jim McLean is executive editor of and Andy Marso is a reporterr for KHI News Service, which is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas. Follow Jim on Twitter @jmckhi. Follow Andy @andymarso.