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SPOTLIGHT
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A closer look at the Senate Eight

Published on -6/24/2012, 12:38 PM

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In a confusing election year Kansas voters will have the opportunity to shape the direction of state politics and government. However, in the August primary elections, Republican voters in eight select Senate districts will exercise an oversized impact as they determine whether to vote for or against the "Senate Eight," eight incumbent state senators targeted for defeat by a conservative coalition led by Gov. Sam Brownback.

This conservative coalition wants these Republican primary voters to purge the current leadership of the Kansas Senate, specifically President Steve Morris, Hugoton, and Majority Leader Jay Emler, Lindsborg; and key committee chairs Pete Brungardt, Salina; Carolyn McGinn, Sedgwick; Tim Owens, Overland Park; Vicki Schmidt, Topeka; Jean Schodorf, Wichita; and Ruth Teichman, Stafford.

The coalition has recruited candidates to defeat the Senate Eight, and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce political action committee has stepped forward as the chief enforcer for the coalition. The Chamber PAC has pledged to raise and spend $1 million to expel the Senate Eight, as well as any other legislative candidate who, it believes, has stepped out of line or refuses to pledge allegiance to its agenda of cutting taxes and shrinking government.

Conservative leaders believe that eradication of the Senate Eight will chasten legislators throughout Kansas and make the litmus tests, no-tax pledges, and score cards of interest groups associated with the coalition even more effective in forcing political discipline in the upcoming elections and in future legislative sessions.

The chamber PAC's track record in purging dissident Republican legislators is not stellar. In 2010, the chamber PAC targeted 10 incumbent House Republicans for defeat and fell far short as nine of the 10 were re-elected. Further, Republican voters generally favor incumbents as fewer than one in six challengers have prevailed over the past 20 years.

The 2012 elections may change history, however. The conservative alliance now has, as never before, a true believer in the governor's office. Brownback wants to transform state governance with an unwieldy assemblage of interest groups that seek to restrain government on economic issues, such as taxing and spending, and enlarge the reach of government on social issues such as abortion and evolution, among others. Never before has the coalition mounted a sustained campaign, slated candidates statewide, and pledged to spend $1 million in doing so.

Republican voters residing in the districts of the Senate Eight should prepare to be deluged with campaign propaganda much of it negative over the next six weeks, likely a continuing stream of attack ads from undisclosed sources, dozens of mailers of a similar flavor, robo calls, and distortions galore. Separate the wheat from the chaff by asking yourself:

Do I want be represented by Republican legislators who march in lockstep with the conservative coalition led by Brownback and allied with interest groups, such as the chamber PAC, Americans for Prosperity and Kansans for Life, among others?

Or do I want to be represented by Republican legislators who view themselves as "traditional" Republicans and trace their lineage to Kansas icons such as Landon, Eisenhower, Dole and a long list of Republican governors and legislative leaders? These traditional Republicans believe the state should meet its obligations in funding for education and assistance to vulnerable residents and at the same time exercise restraint on taxing and spending. They have questions about the conservative agenda and are willing to propose alternatives.

They view the state Legislature as an independent branch of government, and do not believe Republican legislators are obliged to be in agreement with a Republican chief executive on every issue.

On Aug. 7, Republican voters in eight Senate districts will make choices of extraordinary importance to the future of Kansas government and politics and in doing so will shape the lives of all Kansans in fundamental ways.

H. Edward Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University.

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