Brownback clears the final hurdle
Gov. Sam Brownback and his political allies cleared their final hurdle of this election season as Kansas voters rewarded them with huge majorities in both houses of the Kansas Legislature on Tuesday.
Republicans will retain a 92-33 advantage over Democrats in the Kansas House and a 32-8 edge in the Kansas Senate, which are the exact margins of the past two legislative sessions.
Even though Republican majorities will remain the same, the composition of the legislature changes dramatically come January. Voters turned out 19 House incumbents in the primary and general elections, many as a result of court-ordered redistricting. Only 69 House veterans will return in January.
While five former House members were elected, 51 House members will be brand new, making this the largest freshmen class in 60 years or more. And, more than 70 members will have two years' experience or less.
The change in Senate composition is striking as well. Twelve Senate incumbents were defeated, 10 in the primary. The Senate will have 17 new members, but 11 of them are incumbent House members who successfully won Senate seats and two more are former House members.
In the August primary Brownback took the unprecedented action of campaigning against incumbent Republicans who he believed were blocking his legislative agenda. As a result Brownback and his conservative allies helped defeat nine Republican moderates in the Senate, wiping out most of the chamber's Republican leadership.
Brownback's action prompted a group of moderate Republicans, mostly former elected officials, to endorse Democratic candidates in a few general election races. These endorsements may have influenced the outcome of one close race in Manhattan, but for the most part, moderate Republican voters returned to the Republican fold despite some vitriolic primary battles.
Democrats campaigned against giving Brownback a rubber-stamp legislature and in opposition to his income tax cuts, particularly the impact of the cuts on spending for education and social services. Republicans and outside groups cleverly responded by tagging Democratic candidates with Obama and Obamacare, both of which are unpopular in Kansas. A number of competitive campaigns produced close races across the state but did little to change the election's outcome.
Brownback's aggressive legislative agenda of cutting taxes and limiting spending, changing judicial selection, reforming Medicaid, and regulating abortion, among other issues should enjoy smooth sailing in the upcoming legislative session.
On the other hand constitutional amendments, for example on judicial selection, if proposed by Brownback, could be blocked by an alliance of Democrats and the diminished number of moderate Republicans. Still, moderate Republican legislators will be under intense pressure to join the Brownback bandwagon and avoid the fate of their defeated comrades.
Challenging issues will confront Brownback and state lawmakers almost immediately. A decision to establish a state health insurance exchange as encouraged by Obamacare and recommended by Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger faces a November deadline. Whether Kansas will extend health care coverage to uninsured, lower-income Kansans with expanded Medicaid funding, available through Obamacare, will be on the table shortly. Flaws in the income tax bill enacted last year have to be fixed by legislative action and could open up other tax issues for discussion. Lowered revenue estimates may require Brownback to revisit extending the temporary sales tax increase to avoid drastic cuts in state spending.
In two short years, Brownback has established himself as an aggressive governor who is willing to take political risks on issues he cares about. He is comfortable and confident in his gubernatorial role. His approval ratings suggest that Kansans are not as yet completely comfortable with him and his policies.
But, for the moment, Kansas voters have given Brownback and his agenda a vote of confidence.
H. Edward Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University.