KHI News Service

GOP conservatives best moderates in Kansas Senate primaries

Senate President Steve Morris among those with too-short vote counts

By Mike Shields | August 08, 2012

With a few exceptions, GOP conservatives prevailed over the party's moderates in primary elections Tuesday that yielded contests in 32 of 40 Kansas Senate districts.

Among the incumbent Republican senators knocked out were President Steve Morris of Hugoton and Pete Brungardt of Salina, who is vice chair of the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.

Sen. Vicki Schmidt of Topeka, chair of the health committee, narrowly rebuffed a challenge from Rep. Joe Patton.

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Among the veteran Senate Republicans who were defeated were Ruth Teichman of Stafford, chair of the chamber's insurance committee; Dwayne Umbarger of Thayer, transportation chair; and Tim Owens, chair of the judiciary committee.

Sen. Bob Marshall of Fort Scott lost to newcomer Jacob LaTurner by a wide margin and Jean Schodorf of Wichita, another incumbent, was defeated in a close contest with Wichita City Councilman Michael O'Donnell.

Sen. Dick Kelsey of Goddard, a conservative sometimes at odds with the administration of Gov. Sam Brownback on issues dealing with social services, was pushed out by State Rep. Dan Kerschen, a conservative from Garden Plain.

Moderate Sen. Roger Reitz, a Manhattan physician, lost in a three-way race to Bob Reader, a conservative. Also defeated in that primary was former House Majority Leader Joe Knopp.

Sen. Steve Abrams, a conservative from Arkansas City, survived a challenge from moderate Miranda Allen of Kiowa. Allen was endorsed by former Gov. Bill Graves, a GOP moderate who now leads the American Trucking Association in Washington, D.C., but Abrams beat Allen by a solid margin.

Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler of Lindsborg and Ways and Means Chair Carolyn McGinn of Sedgwick were among the few GOP moderates to survive challenges.

Brownback and his political allies, the Kansas Chamber and Americans for Prosperity-Kansas, had targeted GOP moderates early. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were pumped into the campaigns from both sides, producing one of the most bitter and lively primary seasons in recent memory.

“I got robo-calls from out-of-state groups. I got the mailings. I hardly recognized myself in some of the mailings. The tone of this race was different than the previous two times I ran,” Schmidt said late Tuesday, describing the intensity of the campaign.

KHI News Service

Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican, hugs a supporter after learning of her victory over Rep. Joe Patton in Tuesday's primary election.

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Schmidt and other moderates were accused of supporting the federal health reform law in campaign materials from opponents that FactCheck. org labeled "misleading."

"There were several mailers that landed in my district that had a picture of myself with President Obama and myself with (U.S. House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi. I have never met them. I don’t have anything to do with them. I’m a state senator. So I don’t know why that (the health reform law issue) came into these races, but I think it did resonate with a fair amount of my voters,” Schmidt said.

Though many of the so-called moderates had solid voting records in support of business interests and opposition to abortion, they differed with the governor on issues of school funding and tax policy.

“The primary results make one thing clear: Kansans support those who promote fiscally conservative, limited government, free market policies,” said Derrick Sontag, director of Americans for Prosperity-Kansas.

The House and Senate Democratic leaders held a joint press conference this morning inviting moderate Republicans and independent voters to join Democrats in opposing conservative Republicans in the November election.

"The welcome mat is front and center at the Kansas Democratic Party," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence.

"The Democratic Party is an excellent alternative to the Brownback agenda as we go into the November election," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka.

Democrats have candidates in 31 of the 40 Senate districts and in about 90 of the 125 House districts. But Kansas is so heavily Republican and Democrats so few in the Legislature that neither man broached the possibility of a Democratic majority in either chamber.

The most they would say was that electing more Democrats could help "moderate" the Legislature. Davis said his analysis of Tuesday's election results showed that GOP centrists had picked up five seats in the lower chamber. If enough Democrats then gain seats in the November races, the House could balance against the conservative gains in the Senate.

Hensley said Democratic candidates would emphasize the issue of property taxes and the Brownback plan to remake the state's Medicaid program during the general election campaign.

"The people of Kansas have a clear choice," Brownback said in a brief prepared statement regarding the elections. "Do we want to grow the government or grow the economy?"

According to Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the state's chief election officer, 403,918 votes were cast statewide in the primaries or 23.5 percent of registered voters. Kobach had predicted 18 percent turnout. He attributed the larger-than-expected turnout to the interest in hotly contested races.

(Staff writer Jim McLean contributed to this report)

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