With losses to conservatives and Democrats, Johnson County’s moderate Republicans find themselves in the wilderness

Jay Senter - November 14, 2018 10:30 am
Conservative Republican Kellie Warren thanks supporters after winning the seat held by moderate Joy Koesten, who she defeated in the primaries. Photo credit Emily Park.

August 2, 2016 was a heady night for moderate Republicans in Johnson County.

Motivated by votes during Sam Brownback’s tenure as governor they believed had gutted the state’s finances and led to the protracted underfunding of schools, moderate activists here had organized aggressive campaigns to unseat a host of conservative Republican incumbents.

And as the results came back, it looked like a clean sweep.

In the Blue Valley area, moderates Patty Markley and Joy Koesten had defeated conservative incumbents Craig McPherson and Jerry Lunn in House races. Jan Kessinger had defeated incumbent Rob Bruchman in a House district that splits Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission. And moderates Dinah Sykes and John Skubal had unseated incumbents Greg Smith and Jeff Melcher.

Those pick ups were key in moderates ability to advance legislation largely rolling back the Brownback tax cuts and passing a K-12 funding bill.

What a difference two years makes.

On Monday, Markley and Koesten were on hand at the Blue Valley Board of Education meeting to receive “Friend of Education” awards recognizing their service to the district — a swan song as they prepare to leave office. Markley and Koesten lost primary races to conservative Republicans Chris Croft and Kellie Warren this summer.

And while Kessinger and fellow moderates Stephanie Clayton and Tom Cox held on to their seats against challenges from Democrats, incumbent Republicans Linda Gallagher and Melissa Rooker were unseated by Democratic challengers Susan Ruiz and Rui Xu.

With the 2018 election cycle complete, moderate Republicans saw much of the gains they made in the House in 2016 wiped out — both in Johnson County and across the state.

“I think what we saw was kind of everyone going to their corners,” said Clayton. “We saw conservatives winning in districts that went for Trump in 2016, and Democrats winning in districts that went for Hillary.”

‘People need to understand: This is going to be hard’

Democrat Laura Kelly will occupy the Governor’s office — but will be working with a legislature that shifted to the right. Photo credit Andrew Poland.

The outcome will fundamentally change the dynamics of the legislating process come January.

While Democrat Laura Kelly may be set to occupy the governor’s office — based largely on her wide margin in Johnson County — both the House and the Senate will be more conservative than the previous session. In addition to the half-dozen-plus moderate House seats that shifted to more conservative legislators this election, moderate Topeka Sen. Vicki Schmidt’s election as Insurance Commissioner means Republicans will need to appoint a replacement.

“They will appoint someone who is more conservative,” said Mission Hills Sen. Barbara Bollier, who drew sharp criticism from Republican party leaders for crossing party lines to endorse Kelly in the governor’s race. “So while the governor’s office may have gone Democratic, both the House and the Senate are moving more conservative.”

That likely means gridlock is on the horizon, Clayton and Bollier agree. With conservatives set to remain in key leadership roles in the House and Senate, Kelly may have a difficult time getting priority legislation on school funding or Medicaid expansion through the committee process.

“From the insider standpoint, the problem is that we’ve needed moderates to actually enact policy,” Clayton said. “They are the bridges that get the deals worked out.”

And with fewer of them in the legislature, some moderates think polarization will only increase.

“People need to understand: This is going to be hard,” Bollier said. “There’s no sigh of relief. Yes, it’s really nice to have somebody on second floor that is going to be a great governor. But it’s going to be a harder lift than it was before in the legislative chambers.”

Rooker, who was first elected to the House in 2012, said that with the Republican caucus shifting to a more conservative outlook, it was likely that you could see the return of conservative-favored approaches to issues like K-12 funding making their way into bills that get approved by both chambers and then sent to Kelly’s desk, forcing her to veto them. Rooker likened the prospect of that situation to a “cascade of political chicken.”

Cindy Holscher, a Shawnee Mission area Democrat who won reelection to the House last week, acknowledged that with conservative Republicans increasing their presence in both chambers, it would be difficult to get many bills favored by Democrats through the committee process. But she said Kelly’s victory over Republican Kris Kobach shouldn’t be discounted.

“So many of us have assumed the past several years that if you wanted to get a good bill moving forward, you had to have a veto-proof majority,” Holscher said. “Without the threat of a veto, you get to aim for a much lower number.”

Where do moderates go from here?

Sen. Barbara Bollier said she feels like moderates “have been left by the side” in the Republican party.

The hollowing out of the center in Johnson County has many long-time moderates wondering where their coalition will head from here.

Bollier was stripped of her committee appointments after endorsing Democrat Tom Niermann, who finished third in the Democratic primary, for the Kansas 3rd Congressional District seat over incumbent Rep. Kevin Yoder.

She said she feels she has been “left by the side” by Republicans and knows she is at odds with party leaders on many issues. But she intends to continue her work in the senate, saying she thinks Kelly will need moderate legislators like herself to get legislation passed.

“Laura is a moderate Democrat and I’m a moderate Republican and we worked together in the senate,” Bollier said. “I’m staying in the senate and not joining the cabinet or anything else because I think Laura needs me more than ever where I am.”

But Bollier recognizes the voting coalition that has supported lawmakers like herself in the past may be breaking up.

“I think Democrats that have steadfastly supported Republican moderates at the polls are done. They’re moving on,” Bollier said.

And some of the campaign tactics used this cycle suggest moderates may face an increasingly difficult path back to positions of influence. In her reelection race, Rooker saw a host of negative postcards sent to voters in her district — some from Kansas Democrats, and some from the conservative Americans for Prosperity, forcing her to fight off critics from both sides.

Stephanie Sharp, a moderate Republican who served in the House before becoming a campaign consultant for other moderate Republicans, said she worries that moderates who are abandoning the party because of a dislike for President Donald Trump are doing themselves a disservice in the long run.

“People are saying they are not going to vote for any Republican because they don’t like Trump and Trump is a Republican,” Sharp said. “I think what a lot of moderates are going to find is that they don’t have representation any more. If you only consider party and don’t consider people’s actual votes or personality, it’s a willful disregarding of reality.”

Clayton said she can’t imagine a path in the near- or mid-term that would see a moderate Republican rise to a position like Speaker of the House or Governor. But she said there are pockets of Johnson County where the moderate outlook on policy is still dominant.

“I know from going around my district that there are plenty of people who consider themselves moderates, whether Democratic or Republican,” she said. “Those people are always going to be around. And they deserve representation.”

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