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The 'Almost' Revolution

Published on -8/10/2014, 3:28 PM

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Electoral politics are remarkably stable. Incumbents win re-election 90 percent of the time. Money, especially early, is an excellent success predictor. Change comes slowly, mostly because the personnel seldom changes. So when change happens, it seems like a revolution has happened. Nothing changed after the primary, but it was closer than it has been in a decade. Call it an "almost" revolution.

Incumbents mostly cruise in primaries. Not only do they win re-election 99 percent of the time, they earn big victory margins. Average primary challengers against incumbents win less than 15 percent of the vote. Anything above 15 percent is a sign of incumbent weakness.

What does north of 30 percent mean? Disaster. The incumbent was in real danger of a rare loss. Competitive races are rare, but the Kansas primary gave us three. The least competitive was the most surprising: Gov. Sam Brownback's sub-30 point win over unfunded and unknown Jennifer Winn. A 20-percent result for Winn would have been a moral victory. Earning 37 percent is massive. More than one-third of registered Republicans rejected their incumbent governor. Brownback campaigned minimally, but the results still show weakness. The big question from Winn's performance is whether anti-incumbency alone drove the vote or if the governor's policy was the prime mover. Policy will get the headlines, but when no incumbent pulls more than 70 percent of the vote, there is a clear sentiment against all currently in office. Brownback is in trouble regardless: If core primary-voting Republicans have turned on him, undecided and unaffiliated general election voters likely have, too.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., had the closest race. Alan LaPolice lost by 10 points after a competitive race. Candidates with greater name recognition and access to money who opted out of the primary now are kicking themselves. LaPolice established himself with a successful shoestring campaign, leveraging Huelskamp's uncomfortable relationship with the eastern portion of the district and winning 11 counties east of U.S. Highway 281. Should he choose to run again in 2016, LaPolice could send Huelskamp packing, though this result likely will entice a flood of candidates to enter the race.

The anti-incumbency sentiment was so strong that a one-note amateur candidate, Dr. Milton Wolf, seriously challenged multi-term Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. A seven-point win over the tea party darling after a campaign whose message focused on where Roberts sleeps portends poorly for the incumbent. Unless Democrats shift money to Chad Taylor, who eked out a limp 53-47 victory against Patrick Wiesner, look to independent Greg Orman to push Roberts hard in the general election. Since Democrats now sense opportunity in the governor's race, expect them to double-down on Davis. That spells catastrophe for other Democratic candidates like Taylor and Jean Schodorf, who desperately need Democrats to share the wealth for any hope in November.

Population centers were the other story. Sedgwick County, with approximately one-sixth of all primary voters, turned out for Mike Pompeo but kept Roberts' numbers lower than his statewide average. Johnson County went for Wolf even more than Sedgwick did, the physician winning there and making Roberts sweat all night. Relatively low primary turnout will swell in November, making Sedgwick and Johnson the places to watch on Election Day. If both counties break the same way, it would be hard for any statewide candidate to overcome the advantage they provide.

Tuesday's results suggest if voters were given a straight-ticket option to vote for anyone not in an office, at least a third of all primary participants would have taken it. The revolution has not happened -- yet. But voters have their torches and pitchforks out. The primary was a warning that revolt might be at hand.

Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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