This year Gov. Sam Brownback unleashed a barrage of legislative proposals, most of which seek to reshape Kansas state government into a smaller, more limited version of itself. Events over the past two weeks, though, have put his legislative agenda on a collision course with the remnants of the moderate coalition in the Kansas Senate.
From the mid-1990s to 2010 the moderate coalition, composed of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, often prevailed. It generally coalesced at the end of each legislative session to thwart conservative attempts to reduce K-12 education spending.
However, the 2010 elections killed the moderate coalition in the state’s lower chamber. Even though one part of the coalition, House Republican moderates, survived primary challenges by conservatives, their Democratic coalition partners were not so lucky. The Republican tsunami in November 2010 swept away 16 of the 49 House Democrats, leaving Republican moderates in the House without a coalition partner large enough to form a majority.
Today, the only remaining outpost for the moderate coalition is in the Kansas Senate, where a slight majority of the Republican Senate caucus is moderate and loyal to Senate President Steve Morris of Hugoton. Last year, the Senate version of the moderate coalition formed one time to beat back an austere House-inspired budget bill.
Otherwise, for the first time since 1995, the conservative-led House controlled the policy agenda. At the end of the session, the House was able to move much of its legislation through the Senate with limited compromises.
However, events have been conspiring to change the narrative of this legislative session. First, despite the acquiescence of Senate moderates last year, conservative forces in the Republican Party and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce decided to reward them by recruiting conservative challengers for the 2012 Republican primaries.
Second, Tim Owens, an Overland Park moderate and chair of the Senate redistricting committee, responded to this conservative challenge by drafting a redistricting plan for the Senate that would gerrymander conservative challengers into the same districts. Hell hath no fury like a RINO (Republican in Name Only) scorned.
Owens’ draft Senate map, however, was never intended to survive intact. Rather, the moderate Republicans were sending an important political message: They were not going down without a fight.
Third, the conservatives and governor’s staff did not catch the clue to back off. Undeterred, House Speaker Mike O’Neal of Hutchinson and the governor’s chief of staff, David Kensinger, threatened to interfere in the Senate’s redistricting plans, breaking a number of political taboos.
Talk about kicking a sleeping dog. The combination of these three events effectively reawakened the coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Senate by removing most incentives for moderate Republicans to work with the governor and his conservative allies.
So, with Kensinger glaring down from the Senate gallery, the moderate coalition in the Senate made its first appearance of the session last week, rejecting Gov. Brownback’s attempt to change the nominating process for state appeals court judges.
Add this political miscalculation by the governor and his staff to the long laundry list that they have been amassing. There was simply no need to kick this sleeping dog. The lesson from the 2010 elections is that the road to destroying the moderate coalition is most easily traveled through conservatives knocking off Democratic incumbents and winning open seats in the general elections, not in challenging moderate Republicans in primaries.
While it is true that the governor’s legislative agenda is already in hot water (because of his previous missteps), a reawakened moderate coalition in the Senate pushes the governor’s agenda from the hot water stage to the boiling point. Even if the governor is able to salvage anything out of the House this year, this legislation is not likely to find a friendly hearing in the Senate.
However, all is not lost for the governor. The moderates have always been prone to political compromises and will most likely compromise again. But, if the governor can’t compromise and make peace with Senate President Morris, he will have to wait until next year for another attempt to turn Kansas into a low-tax, business-friendly, socially conservative haven.
Can you hear that dog howling? It now seems to be coming from Cedar Crest.
Joseph A. Aistrup is a professor of political science at Kansas State University and owns two dachshunds that he has never kicked, sleeping or awake.