A top Senate leader and at least 10 other conservative Kansas legislators have lost their seats as moderate Republicans made GOP primary races a referendum on education funding and the state’s persistent budget woes.
Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce was among the lawmakers ousted amid a backlash against Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies.
The voting occurred against the backdrop not only of the state’s fiscal woes but ongoing legal and political disputes over funding for public schools. The state Supreme Court could rule by the end of the year on whether the Legislature is shorting schools on their state aid by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since the GOP-dominated Legislature slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 at Brownback’s urging to stimulate the economy. That’s created concerns among educators about future spending on schools, even as many Republicans see the $4 billion-plus a year the state now spends as generous.
Bruce, from Nickerson, fell in his south-central Kansas district to Ed Berger, former president of Hutchinson Community College.
Bruce was a particular target because of his visibility as the Senate’s No. 2 leader. He also had disagreements with the Senate’s top leader, President Susan Wagle, of Wichita. Bruce is closer to Brownback than Wagle is.
“He seemed to care more about what the Brownback administration wanted rather than what the people he represented wanted,” said Mary Dondlinger, an 80-year-old retired Hutchinson teacher and Republican who voted for Berger.
Five other conservative senators lost in races that spanned the state. So did five conservative House members, all of them from affluent Kansas City-area suburbs in Johnson County, the state’s most populous, where voters have cherished good public schools for decades.
Wagle issued a statement saying that while some statistics show a better economy in Kansas — Brownback and his aides cite low unemployment, for example — such data “do not reflect how everyday Kansans view the direction of the state.”
Bruce leaned partly on his record as a strong advocate of gun rights, having been the key backer of successful legislation to allow Kansans to carry concealed weapons without a state permit. Steve Brady, a 54-year-old Hutchinson business owner, said he voted for Bruce because he “is doing more positive things.”
But the primary results suggested many Republicans were unhappy.
“Too many Kansans still feel that the sun is not rising for them and their families, despite what some leaders tell them,” Wagle said.
Besides Bruce, the conservative senators who were unseated were Tom Arpke, of Salina; Forrest Knox, of Altoona; Jeff Melcher, of Leawood; Larry Powell, of Garden City; and Greg Smith, of Overland Park. All are Brownback allies.
Some Brownback critics focused more on the Republican primary for House seats. Ousting conservatives would further their goal of building a governing coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats on key education and budget issues.
The House conservatives who lost Republican primaries were Rob Bruchman, of Leawood; Brett Hildabrand, of Shawnee; Jerry Lunn, of Overland Park; Charles Macheers, of Shawnee; and Craig McPherson, of Overland Park.
Three other conservative Republicans trailed, but their races were close. They were Will Carpenter, of El Dorado; Kasha Kelley, of Arkansas City; and Connie O’Brien, of Tonganoxie.
Democratic Rep. Ben Scott, of Topeka, lost his seat to a former state lawmaker and Topeka-area political veteran, Vic Miller. The district has no GOP candidate in November.