Orlin Wagner/AP
A voter enters city hall in Lecompton, Kan., to vote in the state's primary election Tuesday. Moderate Republicans unseated a significant number of more conservative state legislators.

How moderate Republicans rebelled against the far-right in Kansas

Moderate Republicans unseated a number of conservative state legislators and a tea party-affiliated US representative in the Republican primary, in a shift away from the state's previous electoral support of staunchly ideological candidates.

Under the leadership of Gov. Sam Brownback (R), Kansas has become a laboratory for an experiment in conservative governance. However, amid budget, school funding, and infrastructure concerns, moderate Republicans are fighting back.

Brownback allies suffered significant losses in state legislative primary elections on Tuesday, and US Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus, was also defeated

"Fiscal conservancy is a good thing, but not when you start starving to the point it doesn't function," state Rep. Barbara Bollier, a moderate Republican who won unopposed in a Senate primary, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "People here believe in good government, not no government. That was a libertarian tea party movement, and I think that flame was put out." 

The results hint at a shift in thought among Kansas voters, not only regarding the effectiveness of Brownback and allies' conservative governance, but also concerning the ideological stubbornness of the conservative state leadership and tea party-affiliated Representative Huelskamp, versus a more pragmatic approach.  

"You do see some Republicans, and certainly a lot of moderate Republicans ... saying maybe we're tired of the endless battles, of the ideological fervor," Bob Beatty, a professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, tells the Monitor. "There's a practical idea here, to get things done. Work together, get something done." 

In Kansas Senate primaries, 8 of the 12 candidates supported by the extremely conservative, Brownback-supporting Kansas State Chamber of Commerce lost in their primaries, including 5 incumbents. In the House, 18 of 31 candidates supported by the state's chamber lost in their primaries, including 8 incumbents, according to a tally from H. Edward Flentje, a professor emeritus at Wichita State University's Hugo Wall School of Public Affairs. 

Governor Brownback, first elected in 2010, enacted major tax cuts in 2012, a plan which slashes $3.7 billion in income taxes over five years. He also eliminated income taxes for many small businesses, hoping that would stimulate the economy. Although Brownback has defended the cuts, most believe the cuts have not caused the economic boom its supporters had hoped for, and instead caused a financial crisis and government services to suffer.   

"This created very low revenues, which, in turn, has effected services," Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, tells the Monitor. "What happened last night, in the Republican primaries, was that the Republicans repudiated the governor, and they repudiated the far-right legislature."

In order to continue to fund government services, localities had to increase local taxes as they were not receiving as much money from the state. Sales taxes were also raised to address the revenue shortfall, leaving the state with the highest food taxes in the nation and upsetting Republican voters, Professor Beatty says.  

The fiscal situation led Randall Hardy of Salina to challenge, and defeat, a more conservative sitting state senator in the primary. Brownback's tax cut for small business has not worked, he says, and the financial burden put on the state by the $650 decline per year in individual income tax revenue has had an effect. 

"Voters have decided that Kansas has gone too far in one direction, and have told us that it's time to change direction," Mr. Hardy tells the Monitor. "Kansas has had to borrow money from the highway fund, and education, and other sources in order just to meet the budget. That is what got people worried and frustrated." 

With the recent revenue crisis, Bollier says Kansas's education system "has been threatened." Concerns over education issues, especially in Bollier's Johnson County in eastern Kansas, spurred political action from worried parents, she says.  

"That's just the number one issue for most people, and of course it's related directly to the revenue stream," she says. "You can't separate those two." 

Bollier says Tuesday's results are significant, and represent a moderate wing of the party wrestling back some political power in order to address the issues. Leadership in both the House and Senate will be "greatly impacted" by more moderate Republicans, she says, and Medicaid expansion may be on the table as well.

"The good thing is that there will be people in the statehouse who are willing to think and work together to find resolution," she says. "It's not that we know whats going to happen now, but we are going to work toward a solution, which wasn't how it is before."

Despite an only 21 percent approval rating, Brownback has been clear in his defense of his policies, even as many Kansans want him to address some of the financial issues now facing the state as a result of his policies, Beatty says. 

"According to approval ratings, the people of Kansas really don't think it's worked," Beatty says. "They also are not happy about, according to these approval ratings, the recalcitrance, the stubbornness. They want the legislature to react, to get things done if things don't work out, instead of just sticking to their ideological ideas." 

The other big news out of yesterday's Republican primary in Kansas is the defeat of tea party firebrand Huelskamp, a member of the house's ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus, to political newcomer Dr. Roger Marshall. Huelskamp's ideological stubbornness and refusal to compromise no longer resonates with voters, Professor Loomis says.  

"A lot of those people out there are looking at a legislator like Bob Dole, who came from that district, and are saying, 'Look, here's a guy who was very, very partisan, yet he could make deals.'" Loomis says. "'Why can't you be partisan, be tough minded, but when push comes to shove, make a deal rather than rejecting everything as corrupt?'"

Souring to the idea of far-right governance, Kansans wants a government that can get things done, he says. 

"Kansans, although they are Republican and fairly conservative, they know there's a role for government," he says. "I think Brownback's vehemently anti-government approach was rejected, as it was in the case of Huelskamp in the first district." 

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