Governor Sam Brownback and his political allies may take victory laps for their primary election successes. However, their quest to remove any legislative check on the Brownback agenda must clear one remaining hurdle. Democrats will be contesting Republicans in 31 of 40 senate seats and are on the ballot in 89 of 125 house districts in the November general elections.
Republicans have a substantial head start. Nine Republican state senator candidates and 36 Republican house candidates have a free ride, that is, no opposition in November; only six House Democrats have no opposition.
Republicans also have the advantage of incumbency. In contested senate races, Republicans will field 19 incumbents, 12 senate incumbents plus seven house incumbents who won senate primaries; Democrats will field eight. In contested house races, Republicans will field 51 incumbents, Democrats 27.
On top of all this, the chief enforcer for Brownback’s agenda, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, demonstrated extraordinary clout in primary races and will weigh in heavily for Republican candidates. In contested senate primaries in which Republican moderates squared off against Chamber-backed opponents, Chamber candidates won15 of 19 races, including the defeat of seven incumbents. In contested Republican House primaries, Chamber-endorsed candidates won 35 of 48 races. The Chamber endorsed no Democratic candidates.
Further, Brownback and his allies will likely place a heavy drag on Democrats by making the campaigns more about Obama, Obamacare, same-sex marriage, and the like, instead of the Brownback agenda.
Against these odds, can Democrats realistically expect to succeed in November and place a legislative check on Brownback in January? Assuming a small number of independent Republicans would join them, Democratic candidates would have to prevail in no less than 14 of 31 senate races or 35 of 89 house races to block legislation.
A tall order, indeed unlikely, but not insurmountable. A number of factors make general election politics this year more fluid and less predictable.
First, with a presidential election this November, voter turnout can be expected to triple, from 23 percent in August to 72 percent in November, and as a result, an additional 900,000 Kansans will be voting in the general election. The good news for Democrats is that more of those voting will be Democrats and independents, who together make up 56 percent of the electorate; the good news for Republicans is that their voters are still more likely to show up at the polls and vote than are Democrats and independents.
Second, the Brownback agenda fared well in Republican primary contests, due in part to his 53 percent approval rating among registered Republicans. The governor and his allies will find much tougher sailing among Democrats and independents who disapprove of the governor’s job performance by slightly more than 60 percent.
Third, the big question is what moderate Republicans will do. Their candidates were hammered by Brownback and his allies in the primary election. Many moderates were told flatly they did not belong in the Republican Party and should get out. Even though senate moderates took a shellacking in the primaries, they still garnered on average 46 percent of the vote in primary contests against Chamber-backed opponents. Will those moderate Republican voters return to the party fold or be inclined to consider a Democratic alternative?
Moderate Republican voters may look for cues from their leaders, both those still standing after the primary and those who are not. In the aftermath of the primary those voices have been silent for the most part.
It is Labor Day weekend, and in two short months nearly 1.3 million Kansas voters are expected to show up at the polls and determine whether the Brownback agenda clears its final hurdle.
Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University.