A Factional Fight on Kansas’ Right

The Republican Party has endured a radical shift in the rise and aftermath of former President Trump’s reign, and it’s becoming more and more evident that this new Republican Party is here to stay. The Kansas GOP is no exception; the party has mirrored this change over the course of the last 5 years, beginning with the exodus of a sizable contingent of moderates after the 2016 primaries. These moderates posed a significant threat to the Kansas Republican Party, and the Party embarked on a mission to handle them accordingly. After a coalition of moderate conservatives and several Democrats overrode a number of then-Governor Sam Brownback’s vetoes, the moderate coalition then upheld many of Democratic Governor Laura Kelly’s vetoes; much to the chagrin of the more right-wing members of the Kansas GOP. This led to staunch conservatives in the Republican caucuses collaborating amongst themselves to exile those moderates who were willing to cross the aisle. 

Before we can get to last year’s moderate wipeout during the 2020 primaries, we must look at the 2016 primaries and the events that put the legislative Rube Goldberg machine in motion. The moderate wave came in part due to Governor Brownback’s plummeting approval rating, which hovered at a measly 23% before the 2016 election. In the state house, 14 Pro-Brownback incumbents lost re-election to Anti-Brownback Candidates, while in the state senate Pro-Brownback numbers dropped from 25 to 18. One of the most notable of the moderate primary victories was Dinah Sykes of SD-21, who would later go on to become the current Democratic minority leader in the Kansas state Senate. An opportunity soon arose; with this victory, it became possible for a coalition of moderates and Democrats to pass bipartisan legislation. The coalition of moderates then overrode former Governor Brownback’s veto and repealed the Kansas tax experiment.

The collaboration was short-lived. Brownback’s resignation at the beginning of 2018 negated the need for Anti-Brownback Republicans in the eyes of some Republican voters. This, combined with Trump’s rising popularity in the Republican Party, signalled a change in how Kansas conservatives were encouraged to approach legislation. By the time of the 2018 primary elections, 8 moderates lost their primaries, while 2 conservatives were defeated by moderate challengers. Combined with the general election results, the 2018 elections resulted in a net loss of 9 moderates in the State House. While this put Conservatives in the driver’s seat, there was still a sizable number of moderates that would present a challenge. The state Senate was unaffected by this, as those elections are only held once every four years in tandem with the presidential elections (with the exemption of moderate Vicki Schmidt being replaced by an appointed conservative, and moderate Barbara Bollier switching to the Democratic party). Governor Laura Kelly’s victory created an even larger complication for Kansas Conservatives; their simple majority wouldn’t be enough to sabotage Kansas Democrats’ legislative ambitions. They would need a supermajority.

Conservatives quickly hatched a plan to chase moderates out of office in the 2020 primary elections, and they were extraordinarily successful in this. Before the 2020 primaries, there were only 7 state senators and 8 state representatives who could be considered moderates. In the Senate, 6 of those moderates had contested primaries, 5 of whom lost to more conservative candidates. The moderates did, however, win a seat in the primary; and another senator shifted into the moderate category over the course of the last session. The state House lost 6 of their 8 moderates, and only 1 other Republican has shifted into the moderate category since then. This has resulted in a culling of the moderate faction, which in turn has significantly diminished their influence.  That being said, the fight is far from over for conservatives. Despite their disadvantageous position, some of the remaining moderates still have the power to block veto overrides of some bills. This most notably led to the failed attempt to override the veto of SB 55 (which sought to ban transgender athletes from participating in extracurricular athletics) during the first half of 2021. However, the remaining moderates will likely be very difficult to defeat. Moderates John Doll and Brenda Dietrich have already defeated more conservative Republicans in the 2020 primaries; and the other moderates of Jeff Longbine and Carolyn McGinn are longtime incumbents, representing their districts for 11 and 16 years respectively. In the state House, there is little sense in primarying the remaining 2 moderates. The best hope conservatives currently have is to draw moderates out of their districts. However, this would be extraordinarily difficult considering that they would still have to override Kelly’s veto, and would therefore need 3 of the 4 remaining moderates to defect in order to uphold a veto. Despite the declining influence of the moderate coalition, they may still have enough fight left in them to prevent their extinction in the Kansas legislature.