After a closely-contested race two years ago, voters will go to the polls Tuesday to cast their ballot again for either Barbara Wasinger or Eber Phelps, who are running for the Kansas House of Representatives in the 111th District.
In 2018, Wasinger, then the Republican challenger, defeated Phelps, the incumbent Democrat, by 35 votes of 8,647 cast. Phelps requested a recount, which showed him still trailing. A month after the election he conceded the race despite his concerns over the electoral process, including the county’s voting machines.
Phelps, 69, said he still has the desire to run for office two years later.
"The interest was still there, the desire to serve the community, which I have for many years," he said. "Plus, I just felt somebody needed to get in there that was willing to work with this current governor, and getting Medicaid expansion through, and making sure we have adequate funding for our schools. I still have that passion and desire. That’s why I ran again."
Wasinger, 62, said among her priorities if she is re-elected are the economy and improving the foster care system.
"People are worried about the economy, and jobs," Wasinger said. "I think the very first thing, due to the shutdown of the state, we really need to make sure we restore our economic base and get people working.
"One other thing I really want to continue to focus on is the foster care system," she added. "I think the very first thing you can do is improve that line of communication."
Both Phelps and Wasinger have been busy walking door-to-door as the campaign approaches its final days. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the candidates are doing things a little differently this time around. Phelps just drops off literature now that it is colder, but when it was warmer he would stop and talk with voters if they were outside. Wasinger also leaves information, then rings the doorbell and backs off, willing to talk with constituents while socially distanced.
"It’s been good," Wasinger said. "I’ve been able to talk to a lot of people."
Wasinger also feels good about the race.
"I feel the same way as the last election," said Wasinger, now the incumbent. "I’ve worked hard and done my best; I feel good.
"Hopefully, we won’t have that kind of mess this year, but you never know," she added. "We’ll see what Election Day brings."
Phelps also expressed optimism about the election.
"I feel real good about it," he said. "I had two years thinking about it. More importantly, people encouraging me to run again. I’m getting real positive feedback."
Phelps previously served 18 years in the Kansas House, and also has had a seat on the Hays City Commission. Wasinger has also served on the Hays City Commission and was an Ellis County Commissioner.
Phelps would make Medicaid expansion a priority if elected. Federal funding would provide 90% of the cost, with the state picking up the rest. The Kansas Hospital Association’s website shows that the state has lost more than $4 billion in federal funding since 2014. It has been estimated that 130,000 uninsured Kansans would benefit from Medicaid expansion.
"For me, given the impact it would have on our state, the paramount issue is expanding the Medicaid program," Phelps said. "You can look at it as a health issue, but you can also look at it as an economic development issue."
While Phelps has voted for Medicaid expansion, Wasinger did not vote for it in the 2019 session.
"I think when government gets involved in things they don’t do a very good job," Wasinger said. "I think doctors and patients should decide health care, and not the government."
Wasinger said there are some issues that would need to be addressed before considering Medicaid expansion, including a pathway to working and an income-based sliding scale for premiums. She also expressed concern on how the state would pay for its share.
Another health issue is the debate about wearing face masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Last week, Gov. Laura Kelly met with top Republican legislative leaders to discuss a mask mandate. The decision was made to encourage leaders in the state’s 105 counties to promote the use of masks, but no rule for the entire state. Phelps favors a state-wide mandate with no county opt out, while Wasinger does not.
"I firmly believe we haven’t seen the worst yet," Phelps said. "The reason I can say that with confidence is because I’m listening to the medical experts. Sitting here right now, I’d support a state-wide mandate."
Wasinger wants local leaders to decide.
"All along I’ve said you can’t have a blanket proposal for the entire state," she said. "It is crucial that we allow cities and counties to have local control."
Wasinger said she has kept her promises from the last election, including additional school funding with accountability, voting twice against increasing Kansas taxes due to federal tax changes, voting for a payment to KPERS (a public employees retirement system), and voting to improve Kansas roads.
"I kept my promises," Wasinger said. "I think I’ve done a good job these last two years, and I think it’s important to continue to do that job for Kansas and my constituents in the 111th District. I think I reflect their beliefs better than someone else would."
Phelps said education is important, and a good investment in the future. He expressed an allegiance to Fort Hays State University.
"My attitude has always been what’s good for Fort Hays is good for Hays, America," he said.
Phelps said he served while two highway programs were passed, as well as serving on myriad committees and had a long institutional memory regarding education issues. Phelps added that he believed during his time in office there was more of a bipartisan approach in the Legislature.
"I do have, over the years, a good reputation as somebody willing to work across party lines," Phelps said.