Gov. Sam Brownback assured the public that the income tax cuts he championed would stimulate the Kansas economy, supply plenty of money for schools and give other states a “pro-growth” policy model to follow. But voters, including many Republicans, appear to have rejected that idea in the face of budget woes and court battles over education funding. On Tuesday, they ousted 11 of the conservative governor’s allies in favor of more centrist candidates.
The GOP incumbents who lost in the primary included the Senate’s majority leader. Another three conservative House members were trailing Wednesday in still-undecided races. “It’s a mandate when you see the incumbents that supported the policies that have us in the position that we’re in today,” said John Skubal, a city council member in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, who defeated a conservative state senator. “The people are saying they don’t work.”
Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since the GOP-dominated Legislature slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging. That created concerns among educators about future spending on schools, even as many Republicans regarded the $4 billion-plus a year the state now spends as generous. Mark Zrubek, a Republican store manager in Hutchinson, said he voted against Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce because he wanted a change.
“I don’t like the way policies are going,” Zrubek said after voting for the eventual winner, former Hutchinson Community College President Ed Berger. Some Republicans have admitted that Brownback’s tax cuts failed to bring as much growth as expected. The governor contends that regional and national economic trends such as slumps in agriculture and energy production are offsetting the benefits of the tax cuts.
Meanwhile, the Kansas Supreme Court could rule by the end of 2016 in an education funding lawsuit. The issue before the justices is whether legislators must spend hundreds of millions of dollars more annually to fulfill their duty under the state constitution to provide a suitable education to every child. Brownback’s election as governor in 2010 pushed the state’s politics hard to the right, and his allies ousted many of the Legislature’s moderates in 2012. The governor won re-election in 2014 in a tough race clouded by the state’s emerging post-tax-cut budget problems.
Republicans have such large margins in both legislative chambers that they are likely to retain significant majorities after the November election. Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said the governor looks forward to working with those majorities. As for the primary results, Hawley said in an emailed statement, “Kansas is not immune from the widespread anti-incumbency sentiment we have seen across the nation this election season.”
Mike O’Neal, president and CEO of the powerful Kansas Chamber of Commerce, said anti-incumbent feelings are trickling from the presidential race all the way down the ballot. Even GOP moderates, he said, regularly describe themselves as fiscal conservatives to appeal to unhappy voters. O’Neal also considers the state budget “dysfunctional” as the chamber argues for spending cuts to keep it balanced. He said running against the state’s financial woes is “low-hanging fruit for a challenger who doesn’t have a voting record.”
Any candidate who “didn’t run on a platform of distancing themselves from an unpopular administration wasn’t paying attention,” he said. US Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a tea party favorite who lost his GOP primary race in the 1st Congressional District of western and central Kansas, acknowledged the “wave against conservatives.”
“You have the poor economy and the bad poll ratings of our current governor,” Huelskamp said Wednesday. That would have dragged down “anybody else who was a conservative.” In neighboring Oklahoma, another state run by GOP conservatives, anger over a budget crisis and cuts to public schools prompted dozens of political newcomers to run for office in 2016. Two House Republicans lost their seats in the June 28 primary. Only three GOP lawmakers had been ousted in primaries in the previous 16 years.
Victories by Kansas Democrats in November, coupled with the wins of the GOP moderates on Tuesday, could allow the two groups to form governing coalitions to bedevil Brownback during the term-limited governor’s final two years in office. Rita Fasnacht, a self-employed personal assistant in Hutchinson, voted for Berger in the local GOP primary because she saw him as an advocate for education.
“Sometimes new voices can bring another perspective,” she said.