Shock and awe! Kansas voters nailed the coffin shut this week on the discredited Brownback era. They chose a bipartisan path forward by electing Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly as governor and soundly rejected her opponent, Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Kobach was embraced by President Donald Trump, but campaign rallies on Kobach’s behalf by Trump, Vice President Pence and Donald Trump Jr. could not overcome Kelly’s disciplined campaign.
Kelly’s message to voters was consistent and focused: Support our public schools. Do not turn back to the brash partisanship of Brownback, as Kobach promised to do.
Kelly came across to voters as calm, reasoned and understated, a dramatic contrast to bombastic Kobach. She also topped Kobach on fundraising.
Kelly’s campaign showcased bipartisanship by assembling endorsements from an array of high-profile Republicans, including former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, former Govs. Mike Hayden and Bill Graves, and dozens of current and former state lawmakers.
Voters in the five large urban counties — Douglas, Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee and Wyandotte — gave Kelly a hefty 110,000 vote cushion that assured her statewide victory.
Kelly’s challenge in governing for the next four years will be to carry forward on her commitment to bipartisanship. Two years ago voters elected a legislative coalition that not only abandoned Brownback’s radical tax experiment but had the votes to override the governor’s veto.
The numbers for a potential bipartisan coalition have tightened due to the successful targeting of legislative seats by the Kansas State Chamber and its dark money ally, Americans for Prosperity. House Democrats will begin the 2019 legislative session with 39 seats, one short of the past two years, and centrist Republicans with roughly 35, a handful short. However, this coalition will not likely be confronted by a gubernatorial veto.
Republican lawmakers aligned with the Kansas Chamber will control the party caucuses in both the House and Senate, but their numbers fall way short of majorities in their respective chambers. To accomplish anything of substance their leaders would have to convince Democrats or centrist Republicans, as well as the new governor, to join them.
Kelly’s success will depend on working effectively with centrist Republicans and their leaders in both the House and the Senate. These centrists will face challenges in keeping their numbers together while navigating the legislative process with a friendlier governor and potential allies across the aisle.
However the legislative process unfolds, Kansans should expect Kelly to chart a more moderate course for Kansas:
In tone. Brownback’s rhetorical pomposities (“shot of adrenaline,” “a real live experiment,” “look out Texas”) will be retired to the dustbin of history.
School funding. Outstanding issues of concern to the Kansas Supreme Court will be addressed quietly and effectively. Talk of a constitutional amendment to stiff the court on school finance will fade.
Taxes. Tax policy will be guided by balance and diversity in taxes — assuring lower tax rates overall, reducing tax competition with other states, and promoting tax fairness based on income. Serious attention to cutting the sales tax on food will be underway.
Judicial selection. Any constitutional amendment proposing to replace merit selection of the Kansas Supreme Court judges with partisan selection will be dead. Consideration will be given to restoring by statute merit selection of judges to the Kansas Court of Appeals.
Federal aid. Federal funds of assistance to vulnerable Kansans will no longer be blocked by the governor’s office, as in the past. The expansion of Medicaid for low-income working Kansans will move ahead.
Kansas voters opted for a bipartisan path forward, and Governor-elect Laura Kelly has an extraordinary opportunity to point the way.
Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University and served with Kansas Governors Bennett and Hayden.