Little movement for lawmakers

State News

February 21, 2019 - 10:39 AM

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s election created a national buzz about a possible shift to the left in Kansas politics, but many Republicans remain unimpressed and feel little pressure to take up her big initiatives.

The GOP-dominated Legislature has yet to have committee hearings on her plan to expand the state’s Medicaid health coverage for the needy. It has ignored her call to approve an increase in public school funding by the end of this month. A key part of her budget already appears dead. Top Republicans are pursuing a tax relief bill she considers fiscally reckless.

She and other Democrats believe her victory represented a repudiation of Republican predecessors’ policies. Three current lawmakers from the Kansas City area, where Kelly ran especially well, switched to the Democratic Party in December, drawing even more attention to what had been seen as a reliably red state.

Yet many Republican legislators treat Kelly’s victory as a fluke. She won with 48 percent of the vote and her political strength was concentrated in relatively few populous counties. More-local races left the Legislature more conservative, and the party switching didn’t change the balance of power because Democrats attracted GOP moderates likely to help Kelly anyway.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm for her governorship,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative Wichita Republican.

Democrats hold 23 governor’s offices after picking up seven in last year’s midterm elections as they tapped discontent with President Donald Trump, particularly in suburbs. Victories in governor’s races in Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin broke GOP strangleholds on those state governments.

Kelly and her top advisers have said repeatedly that voters elected her to “fix” state government after Republican policies wrecked it. She said earlier this month, “I’m very confident that the people of Kansas are behind me.”

“Gov. Kelly won election in a Republican state. I say that’s a mandate,” said state Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Kansas City Democrat.

But Republicans repeatedly note Kelly’s failure to get a majority of the vote against the conservative GOP nominee, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, with independent candidate Greg Orman taking about 6.5 percent. Also, Kelly carried only nine of the state’s 105 counties.

Former U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, who lost his seat in his Kansas City-area congressional district last year, said Democrats are “misreading the tea leaves.”

“I don’t see this as an endorsement of the more liberal policies that Gov. Kelly is suggesting,” said Yoder, also a former Kansas House member. “The role of the Republican legislators is to represent the traditional Republican values that have made Kansas strong, keeping taxes down, small government, a focus on business.”

Republicans’ views about Kelly’s victory are partly shaped by an ongoing post-mortem of Kobach’s candidacy within the GOP.

Kobach barely unseated Gov. Jeff Colyer in the GOP primary and has since faced Republican grumbling that he ran a lackluster general-election campaign. Kobach’s vocal advocacy of tough immigration laws and take-no-prisoners style of conservatism alienated GOP moderates.

Some Republicans contend the more affable Colyer would have given Kelly a tougher race.

“I think she won because a lot of people were voting against Kobach,” said state Rep. Kyle Hoffman, a GOP conservative from southwest Kansas.