Every one of the 165 seats in the Kansas Legislature will be on the ballot in 2016, and the loyal opposition in Kansas politics should take a careful look at 2014 election results in planning for these elections.
The loyal opposition includes Democrats, the state’s minority party and its backers, and disaffected Republicans and political independents who are dissatisfied with the current direction of Kansas state government and want to make a change. They will be challenging those who have taken charge of governing Kansas for the past five years, specifically Gov. Sam Brownback, his Republican legislative backers, and their allies.
No election contest more accurately reflects voter sentiment on the direction of state government than the high-profile race for governor in 2014. Remember in that election, voters re-elected Brownback to a second term but also recall Democrat Paul Davis and Libertarian Keen Umbehr together received slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. As the leading expression of the loyal opposition, Davis garnered more than 400,000 votes in his challenge to Brownback, a tally representing 48.1 percent of the two-candidate total.
The distribution of the Davis vote might surprise even close observers of state politics and suggests where the loyal opposition might want to concentrate its attention.
For example, Davis beat Brownback by a 54-46 margin in the aggregated vote of the state’s five large urban counties (Douglas, Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee and Wyandotte) that represent more than half of the state’s population. Davis also won over Brownback by a 52-48 margin in the aggregated vote of the state’s 20 largest counties, in other words, the top five plus 15 of the next largest counties, such as Leavenworth, Riley and Saline — which comprise the smaller regional centers across the state. Those 20 counties total more than three-fourths of the state’s population.
On the other hand, Brownback walloped Davis by 25 percentage points, 62.5 to 37.5, in the smallest 85 counties, representing 23 percent of the state’s population. These rural voters more than offset the votes in larger urban counties and handed the governor his statewide winning margin of 32,000 votes. Indeed, the 20 smallest counties totaling less than 2 percent of the population contributed 25 percent of that winning vote margin.
So, if you are aligned with the loyal opposition and want to throw the insiders out, take a look at these voting patterns that might be tracked in every legislative district and precinct across the state. Voting varies sometimes widely across districts, but on average these legislative districts comprising roughly three-fourths of the state’s population form fertile ground for challengers in the upcoming legislative races. Moreover, the dissatisfaction with the direction of state government expressed by voters last November has likely been bolstered by actions of the recent legislative session to raise taxes, cut spending on core services and dramatically increase state debt.
The loyal opposition might be discouraged by their dismal showing in the legislative contests of 2012 and 2014, but last November’s highly competitive gubernatorial vote in three-fourths of the state suggests a more optimistic view and offers a rough guide for those races in 2016.
H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University.