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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org.

The important legislative races in Kansas you probably haven’t heard about

By Stephen Koranda | November 07, 2016

The important legislative races in Kansas you probably haven’t heard about
Photo by Amy Jeffries/KCUR Rep. Russ Jennings, right, sits with Kansas Senate 39 candidates Republican John Doll, left, and Democrat Zach Worf, center, at a candidate forum in Garden City ahead of the August primary. Jennings was unopposed both for the primary and the general election and is seeking the job of House speaker in the Kansas Legislature.

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This story is part of a 2016 Kansas elections collaboration involving the KHI News Service, KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio.

It’s a campaign without ads. There are no TV spots or mailers. The only people voting are the 165 Kansas lawmakers choosing their new leaders.

As University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis says, “Leadership races are the most inside of inside baseball.” 

Loomis said you almost have to be a legislative nerd to have heard of the candidates for Kansas House speaker or Senate president, but they get to make committee assignments and control the chamber.

“These are very important positions,” he said. “You’re investing a tremendous amount of power in these leaders.”

Russ Jennings is a second-term Republican House member from Lakin in western Kansas. He has hit the trail seeking the job of speaker

“I’ve been traveling the state the last couple of weeks meeting with legislators and candidates to become members of the Kansas House,” Jennings said, “visiting with them a little bit about my vision for how the House might operate in the future and getting to know those folks.”

The current speaker, Ray Merrick, is retiring.

Jennings said his vision for taking over entails hearing all viewpoints when it comes to big issues like the state budget, the tax system and Medicaid expansion. He believes that hasn’t happened enough in recent years.

“Everything has been done to squelch an honest discussion about where the state is at and to have a conversation about creative and innovative solutions to address those deficiencies that exist,” Jennings said.

The current House majority leader, Jene Vickrey, also says he’s running for speaker. He didn’t respond to a request for comment but has said his first priority is the fall election.

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Republican Ron Ryckman, also is widely expected to be a candidate for speaker. 

Photo by Stephen Koranda/KCUR Senate President Susan Wagle outlines a series of policy proposals aimed at winning seats for Republicans in the election. She was joined last month by other Republican senators and candidates for the chamber.

View larger photo

But it’s not just the House that will have a leadership election. Last month, current Senate President Susan Wagle stepped up to a lectern surrounded by current senators and candidates for the chamber.

To Kansans who expressed their frustration with the Legislature through their primary votes, Wagle said she has a plan: hold down state spending, make taxes fair and flat, and ensure high-quality education.

“Let me assure you. We have heard. We hear what you are saying,” Wagle said.

An interesting mix of Republicans has signed on to her list of policy priorities. The group includes conservative members and more moderate candidates like Ed Berger, who beat Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce in the primary election.

Bruce had planned to challenge Wagle for her job, but now it looks like she’ll be unopposed.

Wagle said she rolled out the list of policy priorities to help Republicans keep seats in the Senate, not for the sake of keeping her own job as Senate president.

“My goal is to bring back the majority. I’m really not worried about leadership races right now, because there’s not going to be a race for Senate president if I don’t have a majority of Republicans,” Wagle said.

However, having a working relationship with both moderate and more conservative members of the chamber can only help her keep her job.

“She sees that her caucus has changed very significantly and I think she is trying to catch up to where that change is heading,” said Paul Davis, who was the top Democrat in the Kansas House the last time there was a majority made up of Democrats and moderate Republicans.

“My goal is to bring back the majority. I’m really not worried about leadership races right now, because there’s not going to be a race for Senate president if I don’t have a majority of Republicans.” 

- Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle

There could be a majority in the chambers made up of moderate-leaning Republicans and Democrats again next year. But those groups did not come together to elect a coalition speaker when Davis was in the House, and he’s not holding his breath now.

“I wouldn’t completely close the door on that, but I think that it’s probably unlikely that you’ll see a coalition in either the House or the Senate,” Davis said.

Rep. Russ Jennings said in his campaign for speaker he will not be seeking votes from Democratic lawmakers.

“I think it would be very disruptive and perhaps more damaging to try to create a coalition that would come in in January and overrule the decision of the caucus,” Jennings said. “I have no intention to pursue that path. I will work at doing this within the Republican caucus.”

The Democratic and Republican caucuses will meet to elect new leadership before the 2017 legislative session kicks off in January.

— Stephen Koranda is a reporter for Kansas Public Radio