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.
A state Senate race in the Topeka area shows how complicated this election cycle can be for some candidates. Kansas Republicans are running at a time when polls are showing the state’s Republican governor — and the Legislature itself — with pretty low approval ratings.
Senator Vicki Schmidt, a moderate Republican from Topeka’s 20th District, is not shy about the fact that she often doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Gov. Sam Brownback.
“My job is to represent the people in my district, and when the people in my district do not think that certain policies are the right way to go, then I’m not going to be with the governor,” Schmidt said.
Issues like taxes, abortion and the budget caused a rift in the Republican Party leading up to the 2012 elections. In the primary, Schmidt was on one side of the gap and conservative Republican House member Joe Patton was on the other.
Schmidt narrowly beat Patton and survived a purge of moderate Republicans fueled by political advocacy groups and the governor.
This year, there’s a rematch. Patton has been out of the Legislature since the last race. Sometimes these days, he doesn’t sound that different from Schmidt.
“When I began to look what was going on over here at the Capitol, they were deficit financing. They’re underfunding education. They’re robbing from the highway fund. They’re robbing from KPERS. It’s a mess,” Patton said.
Crossing ideological lines
Both Patton and Schmidt are trying to appeal to voters who have some concerns about the way things are going in Kansas.
While knocking on doors recently, Schmidt met a voter worried about funding for mental health treatment.
“I know people are concerned about gun control, but I really think the underlying problem is a mental illness that is not being treated accurately,” said Cheryl, a voter in Schmidt’s district who didn’t want to use her last name. “Mentally ill people are definitely needing our help.”
Schmidt said she hasn’t supported cuts to mental health services.
If she’d gone along with Brownback and conservative leaders, though, she would have voted for more trimming.
“If I were ‘more Republican’ and voted the policies that the Republicans have put forward in the last couple years, I would have voted to cut schools, I would have voted for block grant funding, I would have voted for the largest sales tax increase in history, I would have voted for borrowing from KPERS,” Schmidt said.
“Endorsements are less important in this current political environment.”
“Endorsements are less important in this current political environment.”- Brownback spokesperson Melika Willoughby
Take a step back in time to 2012, and Patton was in the room when Brownback signed into law the massive income tax cuts.
Fast forward to today and Patton is talking up a time he pushed back against Brownback. His website explains how the governor wanted to close the Kansas Neurological Institute in Topeka, a state facility for people with developmental disabilities. Patton offered an amendment on the floor that restored the funding.
“I think it’s important that we do things that are right regardless of the political consequences,” Patton said.
Some groups allied with the governor, like the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, endorsed Patton in 2012 and again this year, but Patton’s making a sales pitch aimed at crossing ideological lines to attract 20th District voters.
“They really don’t concern themselves so much with party labels or factions. They want somebody who can get the job done,” Patton said. “Quite frankly, some of these issues are not liberal, moderate or conservative. You just have to get the government to work, and I can do that.”
Move on to other legislative races, and you might see moderate challengers trying to connect conservative incumbents to the governor. Many conservative incumbents, meanwhile, aren’t talking about Brownback.
When asked if the governor would be endorsing any candidates in the GOP primary, Brownback spokesperson Melika Willoughby wouldn’t directly say.
“Endorsements are less important in this current political environment,” Willoughby said.
Willoughby sounds confident that Brownback’s allies will do well, even in an environment where a recent poll shows almost three quarters of Kansans having an unfavorable view of the governor.
“Kansas Republicans have overwhelmingly chosen to elect pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, small-government candidates in the last three election cycles, and they will likely do so again this year,” she said.
Conservative candidates want to be associated with some of those positions, but they’re being careful in this election cycle about their associations with Brownback.
— Stephen Koranda is Statehouse bureau chief for Kansas Public Radio.