In a confusing election year, Kansas voters will have the opportunity to shape the direction of state politics and government. However, in the August primary elections, Republican voters in eight Senate districts will exercise an oversized impact as they decide whether to vote for or against the “Senate Eight” — eight incumbents targeted for defeat by a conservative coalition led by Gov. Sam Brownback.
This conservative coalition wants these Republican primary voters to purge the current leadership of the Kansas Senate: President Steve Morris of Hugoton and Majority Leader Jay Emler of Lindsborg, along with key committee chairs, Pete Brungardt of Salina, Carolyn McGinn of Sedgwick, Tim Owens of Overland Park, Vicki Schmidt of Topeka, Jean Schodorf of Wichita and Ruth Teichman of Stafford.
The coalition has recruited candidates to defeat the Senate Eight, and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce political action committee has stepped forward as the chief enforcer for the coalition. The Chamber PAC has pledged to raise and spend $1 million to expel the Senate Eight, as well as any other legislative candidate it believes has stepped out of line or refuses to pledge allegiance to its agenda of cutting taxes and shrinking government.
Conservative leaders believe that eradication of the Senate Eight will chasten legislators throughout Kansas and make the litmus tests — no-tax pledges and score cards of interest groups associated with the coalition — even more effective in enforcing political discipline in the upcoming elections and in future legislative sessions.
The Chamber PAC’s record in purging dissident Republican legislators is not stellar. In 2010, the Chamber PAC targeted 10 incumbent House Republicans for defeat; nine of the 10 were re-elected. Republican voters generally favor incumbents, as fewer than one in six challengers has prevailed over the past 20 years.
The 2012 elections may change history, however. As never before, the conservative alli-ance has a true believer in the governor’s office. Gov. Brown-back wants to transform state governance with an unwieldy assemblage of interest groups that seek to restrain government on economic issues such as taxing and spending and extend the reach of government on social issues such as abortion and evolution. Never before has the coalition mounted a sustained campaign, slated candidates statewide and pledged to spend $1 million in doing so.
Republican voters in the Senate Eight districts should prepare to be deluged with campaign propaganda, much of it negative. It will likely involve a stream of attack ads from undisclosed sources, dozens of mailers of a similar flavor, robo calls and distortions galore. Voters could separate the wheat from the chaff by asking themselves:
Do I want to be represented by legislators who march in lockstep with the conservative coalition led by Gov. Brownback and are allied with interest groups such as the Chamber PAC, Americans for Prosperity and Kansans for Life?
Or do I want to be represented by legislators who view themselves as “traditional” Repub-licans and trace their lineage to Kansas icons such as Alf Landon, Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Dole and a long list of other Republican governors and legislative leaders?
These Republicans be-lieve the state should meet its obligations in funding for education and assistance to vulnerable residents and at the same time exercise restraint on taxing and spending. They have questions about the conservative agenda and are willing to propose alternatives. They view the Kansas Legislature as an independent branch of government and do not believe Republican legislators are obliged to be in agreement with a Republican chief executive on every issue.
On Aug. 7, Republican voters in eight Kansas Senate districts will make choices of extraordinary importance for the future of Kansas government and politics, and in doing so will shape the lives of all Kansans in fundamental ways.
Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University.