If there was one clear winner in the just-concluded election for both the Kansas Legislature and the U.S. Congress, it was this: polarization.
So said Joe Aistrup, a political science professor at Kansas State University and an expert on Kansas politics, in a speech here Friday morning.
Aistrup also had a couple of interesting footnotes: Gov. Sam Brownback might have a tougher time pushing through his agenda than everyone assumes, and U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp might be vulnerable to a Republican challenger in two years. More on those below.
But the big story, he said, was the victory in legislative and Congressional races of candidates who are “more ideologically strident” than those they replaced. That means “there’s not much room for negotiation,” he said, either in Topeka or Washington.
In the Legislature, the sweeping victory in the August primary election of Republican conservatives over Republican moderates was the key, he said. After the November general election, the number of Republicans and Democrats in both the state House and Senate will remain the same as it had been, but beneath that surface, “the reality is much different,” Aistrup said. That’s because the conservative Republicans now have a majority in both houses and the governor’s office.
But Brownback can’t take for granted that he can ramrod through his agenda, despite those conservative majorities, Aistrup said. The 51 new faces in the Legislature “have a chance to have a lot of influence on the leadership,” and their agenda “is a little bit different from Brownback’s agenda.”
The new legislators, in particular, appear to be focused on lowering property taxes. Brownback “is going to have to do a lot of spade work ahead of time” to get enough support from those legislators to get what he wants.
Brownback does have a “pretty convincing mandate” with this election, Aistrup said, viewing it as “very much an endorsement of his…vision of smaller government.”
That view includes a significantly different approach to budgeting and government spending: Rather than the previous practice of determining what programs needed what amount of funding – and then setting tax rates in order to provide the necessary money – Brownback and his allies want to set tax rates that they think are appropriate first, and then live within the income generated that those taxes generate.
Democrats, Aistrup said, are probably at their lowest point in state history. They are almost entirely limited to the urban areas of Topeka, Lawrence and Kansas City, with their presence in Wichita now almost non-existent. The one exception to the victorious march of conservative Republicans, particularly in the state Senate, was the win by Democrat Tom Hawk in Manhattan. He beat Bob Reader, regarded as a conservative who had taken out incumbent Sen. Roger Reitz, a Republican moderate, in the primary.
“I was surprised (Hawk) won,” Aistrup acknowledged. “I thought his chances were very, very slim…But he represents the one and only exception.”
The newly elected conservative Republicans also have little incentive to compromise with Democrats or the Republican moderates because the Tea Party elements of the Republican Party will hold them accountable and run opponents against them in the next primary if they stray too far, Aistrup said.
The same dynamic is going on in Congress, he said.
Aistrup did say that there was an “extraordinary number” of write-in votes against unopposed Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who won another term in Congress. Also, about 10 percent of voters who cast ballots in the presidential race left blank the spot on the ballot in Huelskamp’s race. He said he could foresee a challenge from a Republican, perhaps from Manhattan or Hutchinson, giving Huelskamp trouble.
Aistrup spoke at the weekly meeting of the Konza Rotary Club.