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GOP defections thwart some of conservatives' plans in Kansas

Stephen Koranda
Kansas News Service

Key conservative initiatives are likely to fail in Kansas this year because a few Republicans are breaking with the rest of the Legislature's GOP supermajorities.

TOPEKA — Key conservative initiatives are likely to fail in Kansas this year because a few Republicans are breaking with the rest of the Legislature's veto-proof GOP supermajorities.

Republicans have pushed measures through the state Senate tightening election laws and weakening school vaccination requirements, but not with the two-thirds vote needed to override potential vetoes from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. A proposed change in the Kansas Constitution aimed at limiting future tax increases also died in the Senate for lack of a two-thirds vote.

Because former President Donald Trump won over many conservatives and abortion opponents, his supporters control the Kansas GOP, and anti-vaccine activists and election-conspiracy promoters have gained influence. But conservatives' struggles in the Legislature show that with Kelly as governor, they still need more-centrist establishment Republicans' support.

“The biggest question, arguably, in American politics right now is, where are the fault lines in terms of Trump Republicans and Republicans?” said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University of Topeka political scientist.

Elections in 2020 moved the Legislature to the right, particularly in the Senate, where only a handful of GOP moderates remain.

Kelly has been unable to expand the Medicaid program for poor and disabled Kansas residents. Republican leaders enacted tax cuts over her veto in 2021, and her proposals for tax cuts this year are foundering. GOP lawmakers have put constitutional amendments on the ballot this year to undo a state Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights and to make it easier for them to overturn state agency regulations.

But Kansas conservatives had hoped for more after COVID-19 restrictions energized the right and Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor's race last year in blue-leaning Virginia. Instead, what Senate President Ty Masterson calls “legacy Republicans” have become key Statehouse players.

“There’s always going to be a select few in the Republican caucus that are more aligned with the Democrats on a couple issues,” said Masterson, a conservative Andover Republican.

One regular dissenter, southwestern Kansas GOP Sen. John Doll, has been both a Democratic congressional candidate and an independent candidate for lieutenant governor. But he considers himself a disciple of two Republicans and Kansas icons, the late former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and President Dwight Eisenhower. He questioned this week whether Dole, Eisenhower or President Ronald Reagan could win a GOP primary today.

“You know that song, ‘I Drink Alone’?” he said. “Fiscally, I think I’m conservative, but I think you’ve got to have great highways, great schools and that sort of thing.”

Doll voted with Republican Sens. Brenda Dietrich, of Topeka, and Jeff Longbine, from eastern Kansas, to help block a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution to require a two-thirds majority in the Legislature for future tax increases. The three senators also voted against weakening long-standing requirements that parents vaccinate their children against diseases such as polio, measles and chickenpox to enroll in school or day care.

Longbine said that despite “an ideological shift” among Republicans, he sees anti-vaccine activists as a vocal but still small minority.

“I don’t think that most Kansans think it’s OK to not vaccinate your children for polio and mumps and measles,” he said.

Dietrich rejects far-right doubts about Kansas elections in 2020, and she and Longbine cited practical reasons in voting along with Doll against legislation would likely discourage many counties from using ballot drop boxes in elections. It would require each one to be staffed when counties don't have the money or employees.

“Does that make sense? What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? Is there a problem?" Dietrich said. "That’s, I think, what guides a lot of our decision making."

In contrast, Dietrich said the proposal to make it easier for legislators to overturn state agency regulations made sense. When constituents complain about problems with agencies, she said, “almost always, if you can track it back, it’s a rule or regulation.” Agriculture groups and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce also support the measure.

University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said that while the trio are seen as the Senate's least conservative members, “They still vote with conservatives a lot.” He also said it's possible that conservatives' push for some measures have amounted to election-year political theater.

“Do they really think they could get this passed or were they just trying to show they were advancing that conservative agenda?” he said.

And, while Kansas regularly elects Democratic governors, the GOP has remained the dominant political party throughout the state's history. Republicans have controlled both chambers for 96 of the past 100 years.

“A lot of people identify as Republican — because it’s a Republican state — that really aren't, and you’re always going to have five or six that are really probably Democrats and you’re going to have three or four that are really Libertarians,” said Tim Shallenburger, a former Kansas GOP chairman, state treasurer and Kansas House speaker.