The August primary elections produced sobering results for all Kansas politicians and, for that matter, all Kansans.
Sometimes important elections, like the presidential contest of 2020, easily display their importance. Others, however, may seem quite ordinary, even as they produce or reflect substantial change. The recent primary falls into this category, largely because it hastens a powerful trend in Kansas politics — the growing national-style partisanship that reduces our capacity to address serious problems.
This year, right-wing Republican state senate candidates won six primary races, knocking off such notable Republican moderates as John Skubal (Overland Park), Randy Hardy (Salina) and Ed Berger (Hutchinson), all who won their seats in 2016 and who faced well-funded, highly conservative opponents.
Several of these GOP winners will cruise to victory, while some other conservative Republicans will face strong Democratic opponents; indeed, Democrats could well pick up a few Senate seats in November, further squeezing out moderate Republicans.
And the Kansas Legislature will take one more step toward embracing the partisanship that infects Washington, D.C.
In the modern era of Kansas governance, from the late-1960s on, three familiar factions have dominated the state’s political landscape: moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans, and conservative Republicans. Although their respective numbers have changed as their political fortunes have waxed and waned, ordinarily any two of them could defeat the third.
Given their centrist status, moderate Republicans often held disproportionate power in determining final outcomes, even when they did not dominate the GOP leadership, which has recently been the case. To be sure, this is a familiar Kansas story, but it remains significant in that so many other states have become heavily polarized, with no real ideological center.
In Oklahoma, for example, a strong GOP emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, as the state evolved from its long-time southern Democratic roots. New Republicans were conservative, while moderates remained Democrats. The idea of a "moderate Republican" was and is inconceivable.
Reacting to the Brownback administration, moderate Republicans reasserted themselves in the election of 2016 and hung on in 2018. Meanwhile, Democrats came back in the state legislature, as well as winning the governorship and a congressional seat. Thus, the three-party system was resurrected, however tenuously.
That gets us to the 2020 elections. Almost certainly, the Legislature will host more far-right Republicans, more Democrats, and fewer moderate Republicans.
In addition, the 2020 elections will likely produce enough Democrat legislative seats to render the Legislature "veto-proof," in that Governor Kelly’s fellow partisans will have more than a third of the seats in at least one chamber. This means that even conservative Republicans will have to negotiate with Kelly, given her veto power.
This negotiation can happen in one of two ways. First, Republican legislative leaders could encourage the chambers to work bills in committees and bring those with adequate support to the floor, allow requisite votes, and send them on to the governor for her signature or veto. In short, it could be a relatively collegial process.
Alternatively, they could make every issue a partisan test, delaying issues (per Medicaid with Senate President Wagle) and forcing an ultimate budget deal that would leave almost everyone dissatisfied and many issues unresolved.
Let’s hope that legislative leaders opt for acting responsibly and that the Governor reaches out to them. If so, Kansans will be well served by their public servants.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.