Candidate filings for state legislative seats in Sedgwick County show cracks in the iron-clad, far-right block that has dominated state politics for the last four years. These cracks may portend fundamental change in the direction of state government.
Political party candidates have until noon this coming Wednesday to file for a seat in the Kansas Senate or House of Representatives. All 165 legislative seats will be on the ballot in the Aug. 2 primary and the Nov. 8 general elections.
Sedgwick County may not be a perfect bellwether in predicting state elections, but the preferences of Sedgwick County voters have been in sync with Kansas voters in electing every governor in the past seven gubernatorial elections.
Further, Sedgwick County reflects the shift in state politics in that same period. In 1991, 15 Democrats and 13 Republicans represented Sedgwick County voters in the Kansas Legislature. In the 2016 session those numbers had dramatically flipped as 23 Republicans and nine Democrats represented the county.
Except for independent Republican Sen. Carolyn McGinn, 22 of these Republicans formed an ideological block tightly aligned with Gov. Sam Brownback and the far right. They consistently did the bidding of the Kansas State Chamber of Commerce, earned high rankings on the scorecards of Americans for Prosperity, and yielded to the litmus tests of Kansans for Life and the Kansas State Rifle Association.
Further, 20 of the 22 voted this past legislative session to punt on the budget, that is, to adopt an unbalanced budget authorizing $100 million more in spending than available revenues. These Republicans surrendered their constitutional duty to adopt a balanced budget to the governor. Voters now know the results of the governor’s action — slashing health care for vulnerable Kansans, cutting state universities once again, delaying highway projects, and deferring pension payments.
A number of factors point to significant change. Seven far-right incumbents have announced they are not seeking reelection, leaving their seats more open to competition. The remaining Republican incumbents face the dilemma of their alliance with Brownback, a governor with the highest disapproval numbers in the nation, and their failing tax experiment that has led to unbalanced budgets, unfair tax increases, mountains of new state debt, and stagnant economic growth.
Early filings also show that Republicans unaligned with the far right and Democrats are contesting more seats than in prior elections. As of this past Thursday morning, Democrats are competing in 26 races, including 13 against incumbent Republicans. Surprisingly, six incumbent Democrats, as well two running in open seats, have no opposition at this time.
The far-right stronghold of eastern Sedgwick County may be ripe for change. In three seats, Republican primary voters will have a choice of candidates who support high-quality public schools and believe Brownback’s tax experiment is not working: Roger Elliott (87th House District) and Randy Banwart (99th House District) in open seats; and Troy Tabor challenging incumbent Ty Masterson (16th Senate District). Although these are predominantly Republican districts, Democrats are also fielding candidates: Tonya Howard in the 87th House seat, Gabriel Costilla in the 16th Senate seat, and Anabel Larumbe against incumbent Susan Wagle (30th Senate District).
The choices before Sedgwick County voters, as well as many voters across the state, are crystal clear. Do you continue to support those candidates allied with Brownback and the extreme right? Or do you opt for a change in the direction of state government?
Ed Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.