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00000179-cdc6-d978-adfd-cfc6d7d40002Coverage of the issues, races and people shaping Kansas elections in 2016, including statewide coverage in partnership with KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, and High Plains Public Radio.

Big Swing To Center With 'Senate Surprise' In Kansas GOP Primaries

Abigail Wilson
Supporters gather at a bowling alley in Hutchinson where Republican candidate Edward Berger held a watch party Tuesday.

Going into Tuesday’s primaries, most political watchers believed conservatives would lose a few seats in the Kansas House but hold their own in the state Senate.

But by the end of the night, conservative Republicans across the state took a shellacking.

Somewhere down the road last night will pick up a title: The State Senate Surprise or maybe Back To The Future, referring to all those moderate seats lost in 2012.

But last night it became pretty clear, pretty early that moderate challengers were going to have a big night.

Primary losses by a Senate Republican leader and a slew of Johnson County conservatives Tuesday night will swing the Kansas Legislature back toward the center. In all, moderate Republicans won eight state Senate races against more conservative opponents, ousting six incumbents.

Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a conservative Republican from Hutchinson, had aspirations of being the next Senate president. But former community college president Ed Berger defeated him handily in what was perhaps the most surprising result of the night.

“We’re just a bunch of amateurs putting this campaign together,” said Berger, who took 57 percent of the vote, unofficially. “Nobody really had any experience with campaigns, but people were very dedicated to making it happen and that was the difference right there. They wanted to change Kansas and they were committed to making that happen.”

Bruce has been a political ally of Gov. Sam Brownback and several moderate Republicans say his loss and others signal statewide discontent with the governor and the tax cuts he spearheaded that preceded an ongoing budget crisis.

In both the House and Senate, conservatives had a headwind that would have been hard to beat at best.

“Do you think the poor approval ratings of Governor Brownback played a big role? Oh, absolutely," says Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.

Brownback’s approval rating sits under 20 percent and many of the incumbents who went down last night were tightly tied to his tax cuts and social policies.

But Miller says moderates fielded a good group of candidates.

“The moderates came in and recruited, clearly, more credible challengers. Their candidates were raising more money. They seemed to be very aggressive in the ground game," he says.

Sen. Larry Powell, Sen. Tom Arpke, Sen. Forrest Knox, Sen. Jeff Melcher and Sen. Greg Smith are also among conservative incumbents who appear to have lost their seats in election results that still have to be verified by election canvassers. Moderates also picked up two other Senate nominations in open primaries in which conservative senators decided not to run for reelection.

Knox, perhaps the most conservative member of the senate, lost by four points in the primary night tally.

Rep. Barbara Bollier, a moderate Republican from Mission Hills running for a Senate seat, says the voters sent a message to the governor that it’s time to ditch the quest to zero out the state’s income tax and form a plan that ensures Kansas has enough revenue to run a “decent, appropriate government.”

“It’s a huge change,” says Bollier, who was unopposed in Tuesday’s primary, but faces a Democratic challenger in the general election. “I think Sam’s going to have to acknowledge that and figure it out.”

Bruce, in a statement to the Wichita Eagle, said, “The voters have spoken and they wanted to go in a new direction.” He then congratulated Berger and thanked his constituents for electing him to three senate terms.

Tuesday’s moderate Republican victories cut deeply into the Senate’s conservative voting majority and may have reversed it in the House, especially if Democrats pick up a few more seats in November. Moderates and Democrats regularly teamed up to block right-wing legislation until conservative challengers purged the Senate of most of its moderates in the 2012 Republican primaries.

Sen. Vicki Schmidt and Sen. Carolyn McGinn, two moderates who survived that election, both warded off conservative challengers again Tuesday.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita who was unopposed Tuesday, released a statement saying “many of the primaries were hard-fought, but I am confident Republicans will unite this fall to keep Kansas conservative.”

Wagle is generally conservative, but had expressed some openness to changing a portion of the governor’s signature tax plan that exempted more than 300,000 business owners from paying any income tax.

Wagle said she heard the “anger and frustration” voters expressed Tuesday.

“I look forward to working with Republican nominees to offer Kansans a vision for the state that includes a return to fiscally-responsible balanced budgeting — something I have long called for, a tax code that is fairer to all Kansans while keeping taxes low and a focus on the state reforms Needed to compete for new jobs and opportunities,” Wagle said.

Moderate Republicans this year held out for more wholesale changes to the Brownback tax cuts — what several of them termed “real revenue reform.”

In the House, Rep. Susie Swanson, a moderate Republican from Clay Center, defeated conservative challenger and former state school board member Kathy Martin on Tuesday.

She also predicted serious tax talks in the Legislature’s future after it became clear that several conservative colleagues who resisted rolling back the Brownback tax plan would not be returning.

“It makes me more confident we will sit down and work on a solution,” Swanson said. “We’re going to have people who want to solve the problem there.” Democrats have fielded candidates for all 40 Senate seats and many House races this year, creating a possibility of a further shift away from the conservative majority in the November general elections.

There was also some shakeup at the federal level, where U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp lost his primary race to Great Bend physician Roger Marshall by more than 10 percentage points. Marshall got the backing of large farming and ranching groups after Huelskamp lost his seat on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, which is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas. You can reach Andy on Twitter @andymarso.

Sam covers education for KCUR and the Kansas News Service. Before joining the station in August 2014 he covered health and education for KCPT.