Kansas primary election could say a lot about whether the state expands Medicaid

The balance of power may shift in the Kansas Statehouse depending on whether conservative Republicans can win back legislative seats lost to GOP moderates in 2016.

State Sen. John Skubal of Overland Park, seen here on the Kansas Senate floor on the final night of the 2020 session, is one of several moderate Republicans facing primary challenges from more conservative Republicans. (Photo by Jim McLean, Kansas News Service)

by Jim McLean, Kansas News Service

Topeka, Kansas — Control of the Kansas Legislature could turn on dozens of down-ballot races in the Aug. 4 primary election, in which many of the contests, particularly for the Kansas Senate, pit conservative Republicans against moderate incumbents.

In Republican Senate primaries, moderates facing their first re-election test since 2016 can no longer use former Gov. Sam Brownback as a foil. And while taxes remain an issue, two perhaps counterintuitive issues are at the core of this year’s legislative contests: Medicaid expansion and abortion.

“Medicaid expansion definitely hinges on this election and there’s no doubt that women’s reproductive rights also hinge on this election,” said Michael Poppa, executive director of the Mainstream Coaltion, a Johnson County group formed in the 1990s to counter “extremism” in politics.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and a majority of lawmakers support expanding Medicaid health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of low-income Kansans. But conservative Republicans refused to bring the issue to a vote in the 2020 legislative session because lawmakers didn’t agree to put a proposed constitutional amendment on abortion before Kansas voters.

The amendment was a priority for anti-abortion groups seeking to counter a 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling that said abortion is a protected right under the Kansas Constitution.

And the proposed amendment’s defeat is at the heart of Republican primary battles across the state.

The Senate and the chamber

The race between Sen. John Skubal and conservative challenger Rep. Kellie Warren is among the most closely watched in the primary.

Skubal, a moderate from Overland Park, defeated conservative Jeff Melcher in 2016 by calling for the repeal of tax cuts that triggered a budget crisis under Brownback.

The Mainstream Coalition, the Kansas National Education Association and Stand Up Blue Valley are backing Skubal’s bid for re-election.

Warren, in addition to the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life, has the support of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, a powerful group that includes Koch Industries among its most influential members.

For the chamber, though, taxes and regulations, not abortion, are most important. President Alan Cobb said in a recent column published in the Topeka Capital-Journal that the organization is backing conservative challengers because current members of the legislature have not reduced taxes on some companies doing business in Kansas.

“We need legislative champions who understand the fundamental role that business plays in the economic health of Kansas,” Cobb wrote.

Recent changes in federal tax laws, Cobb said, raised state taxes for some individuals and companies by a combined total of more than $1 billion. Kelly vetoed attempts to roll back some of those increases, and Republican leaders could not muster the votes to override her.

“These actions are not reflective of what most Kansans want from their state elected leaders,” Cobb wrote.

The chamber and other conservative groups are most active in state senate races because it is their first opportunity to retake seats lost to moderates in the “anti-Brownback election” of 2016, University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said.

“Conservatives are very much on the offensive,” Miller said, adding that it’s an open question whether moderates can withstand the challenge “without the boogeyman of Sam Brownback to run against.”

The chamber is backing challenges to incumbents in seven GOP Senate primaries. In addition to the Skubal-Warren race, those are:

• Michael Fagg vs. Sen. Bruce Givens in a district that includes portions of seven counties in southeast Kansas.
• Virgil Peck, a former member of the Kansas House, vs. Sen. Dan Goddard in a district that covers the three southeast Kansas counties of Labette, Montgomery and Neosho. Goddard defeated Peck by fewer than 200 votes in the 2016 primary.
• Rep. J.R. Claeys vs. Sen. Randall Hardy in a district dominated by the city of Salina. Claeys, a four-term member of the Kansas House, managed Republican Kris Kobach’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
• Rep. Alicia Straub vs. Sen. Mary Jo Taylor in a district that covers all or some of 11 southwest Kansas counties.
• Mark Steffen vs. Sen. Ed Berger, the former president of Hutchinson Community College, in a district that covers all of Reno County and part of Kingman County.
• Lon Pishny vs. Sen. John Doll in a district that includes Garden City and covers all or part of 11 counties in southwest Kansas. Doll briefly left the Republican Party in 2018 to run for lieutenant governor alongside independent gubernatorial candidate Greg Orman.

Double trouble for moderates?

The moderate/conservative dynamic is in play in a Johnson County district that covers parts of Overland Park, Merriam and Shawnee. Conservative Republican Mike Thompson is trying to hold off a challenge from moderate two-term Rep. Tom Cox.

Thompson, a former TV weatherman, was selected to replace former Sen. Mary Pilcher Cook when she resigned in January with a year left in her third term.

Another member of the Kobach circle faces a challenger in the Topeka-heavy 20th District. Conservative Sen. Eric Rucker was a former top aide to the ex-secretary of state and was selected to fill the remainder of former Sen. Vicki Schmidt’s term when she was elected insurance commissioner in 2018. Rucker is being challenged by moderate Rep. Brenda Dietrich, the former superintendent of the Auburn-Washburn School District.

Dietrich, like many other moderate Republicans, is getting support from American Energy Action, a political action committee formed just this month by companies that operate wind farms in Kansas.

Conservatives are also running to unseat moderate incumbents in a handful of Kansas House races, including a Johnson County district that includes parts of Leawood and Overland Park.

Rep. Jan Kessinger was one of four Republicans whose vote against the proposed constitutional amendment on abortion kept it from passing. And while he has the support of the KNEA, Stand Up Blue Valley and the Mainstream Coalition, challenger Jane Dirks has the backing of the state chamber and Kansans for Life.

The 8th House District is another pivotal race in Overland Park and Olathe. Republican Rep. Chris Croft was elected in 2018 and has endorsements from the chamber and Kansans for Life. His opponent, Clay Norkey, is backed by the same organizations supporting other moderates.

Moderate Republicans are facing a dual threat, said Miller, the KU political scientist. They are vulnerable to conservatives in the primary, especially in rural districts, and to suburban Democrats in the November general election.

Depending on how things play out, Miller said, the legislature could end up “more Democratic, but also more conservative.”

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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Flags to be flown at half-staff on Wednesday in honor of Officer Mosher

Gov. Laura Kelly has ordered U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff on Wednesday, May 13, until sunset throughout Kansas in honor of Overland Park Police Officer Mike Mosher.

“Officer Mosher tragically lost his life in the line of duty, while protecting his community,” Gov. Kelly said. “He was dedicated to service, and we owe him immeasurable gratitude for his career-long commitment to helping others.”

In accordance with Executive Order 20-30, the governor also ordered all flags at public institutions throughout Kansas to be flown at half-staff from sunrise to sunset on Friday, May 15, in observance of Peace Officers Memorial Day. President Donald J. Trump issued a proclamation on Peace Officers Memorial Day and Police Week 2020 that called for the lowering of the flag.

“This week, as we honor the loss of one fallen officer, we also must recognize the continued sacrifices all of our law enforcement officers make as they serve and protect,” Gov. Kelly said. “We are able to live freely because of the brave women and men who suit up every day to protect our communities.”

Flags to fly at half-staff in honor of slain Overland Park officer

Gov. Laura Kelly has ordered flags throughout Kansas to be flown at half-staff in honor of Officer Mike Mosher, an Overland Park police officer who was slain while on duty Sunday.

Officer Mosher was a 14-year veteran of the Overland Park Police Department, a field training officer and community policing officer. He was the president of the Overland Park Fraternal Order of Police.

According to Overland Park police, he was on his way to work Sunday when he went to a hit-and-run call near 123rd and Antioch. He was shot while at the scene. The suspect also was shot and died at the scene, according to police.

“I was deeply saddened to learn of Officer Mike Mosher’s death,” Gov. Kelly said. “When our officers sign up to protect and serve our communities, they are putting their lives on the line for us. The sacrifices he and his family have made will certainly not be forgotten. Officer Mosher was an outstanding officer, and I offer my sincere condolences to his family during this difficult time.”

The governor’s office will provide guidelines later on the dates that the flags will be flown at half-staff.

Gov. Kelly also has announced a new executive order, adding first responders who are killed in the line of duty to the list of those who will be officially recognized through a posthumous order. The new executive order, replacing one originally signed under another governor, adds members of law enforcement, fire and emergency response communities to the list.

The Overland Park Police Department will hold a “Salute to Blue” at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, May 10, lighting the city in blue. There will be a procession of police vehicles in Overland Park. Social distancing will be required for anyone viewing the procession from the procession route, https://dw.opkansas.org/public/FileCabinets/2fa13812-70a3-4126-848b-3a20df7175c3/Documents/10506/FileDownload?targetFileType=Auto&keepAnnotations=false.

A public visitation will be held while staying inside personal vehicles, from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 12, under the canopy of the 110th Street entrance to the Overland Park Convention Center, according to information from the Overland Park website, https://www.opkansas.org/events/visitation-for-officer-mike-mosher/.

A private funeral will take place Wednesday, May 13, for family and friends. The public may view the procession escort along College Boulevard and Metcalf Avenue, to the Johnson County Funeral Chapel and Memorial Gardens, according to the website.

The private graveside service, for family and friends only, will include bagpipes and drums from area law enforcement agencies, as well as bugles for taps from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department. The Kansas Highway Patrol will provide a 21-gun salute and a helicopter flyover. The Wichita Police Department will provide a riderless horse. There will be a cannon salute from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

Memorial donations are being accepted at the Overland Park Police Officers Foundation website, https://oppof.org/.