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SPOTLIGHT
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Primary result will ripple outside district lines

Published on -8/5/2012, 5:33 PM

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On a map of the 24th Kansas Senate District, smack in the middle of Kansas, the intersection of interstates 70 and 135 forms a crosshairs.

In Tuesday's Republican primary, one of eight Senate races in which Gov. Sam Brownback has targeted a moderate incumbent from his own party by backing a more conservative alternative, voters will decide whether the balance of power in the Kansas Legislature shifts that much more in the governor's favor.

While just one race among many, the 24th District Republican primary is a likely bellwether for the moderate-conservative struggle.

If Brownback has his way Tuesday and enough conservatives win their general elections, the coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans that has often thwarted Brownback's agenda in the Senate will be neutralized. If the Kansas House remains dominated by Republicans in Brownback's camp, the governor will control both chambers.

On the line in the 24th District, which includes Saline County and the northern half of Dickinson, is Sen. Pete Brungardt's 12-year tenure in the Senate. In this race, a rematch of the his 2008 primary, Brungardt's opponent is Rep. Tom Arpke, a standard bearer of Brownback's agenda.

Last time around, Brungardt won by just 208 votes. In response to Arpke's second run at his seat, Brungardt already has spent nearly $60,000, more than three times his 2008 primary outlay. According to his July reports, Arpke has spent less than $16,000, but his campaign likely has benefited from off-the-books support from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, which have paid for ads and mailings in moderates' districts.

Brungardt has answered Brownback's endorsement of Arpke with endorsements by former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole and former Gov. Bill Graves. At a candidate forum Monday in Abilene, Brungardt sported an "I Like Ike" campaign button on his lapel, a nod to Abilene's native son and the traditional Republican legacy in Kansas.

Meanwhile, Arpke, whose 2008 loss in Abilene tipped that election, is winning the yard-sign war on Buckeye, the town's main drag, by 2 to 1.

Some voters at the Abilene forum and another the following night in Salina worried that Brownback's deep income tax cuts would force local governments to pay for services now funded by the state and trigger an increase in property taxes. Some, including at least 15 employees of Salina's USD 305, feared the impact on schools.

Others wanted more tax cuts and smaller government. The audiences also included supporters and opponents of abortion and the Affordable Care Act.

Clearly, voters in the heart of Kansas are no monolith.

Given this diversity of opinion, it's impossible to predict how the Brownback agenda will fare Tuesday. Which faction energizes its base to turn out will matter, and unaffiliated voters may request a Republican ballot at the polls.

At the Abilene forum, Arpke, who declined to be interviewed, recited the Kansas Republican Party platform, whose issues range from smaller government to pro-life to states' rights. Among his talking points is a declaration of support for Brownback's tax cuts, which he describes as a pay raise for Kansas families.

Brungardt, on the other hand, emphasizes an independent disposition. A Catholic, Brungardt believes politicians waste time debating abortion because it's settled law. He also opposes the death penalty because it costs more than a life sentence without possibility of parole.

"I'm proud to be one of those called out because I represent you, the voters in my district, and not necessarily the views of Gov. Brownback," he told the Abilene crowd.

Brungardt was optimistic last week and said a poll five weeks before the primary gave him a double-digit lead and found that 84 percent of respondents had already made up their minds. But the typically low turnout in primaries -- 18 percent in his district in 2008 -- is a wild card.

This Senate primary, like all those in which moderates are on the defensive, will have ramifications far beyond the 24th. And you can be sure the governor will be among those watching the returns come in.

Gwyn Mellinger is professor and chairwoman of the Department of Mass Media at Baker University, Baldwin City.

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