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Moderate Republican and Democrat Victories Shifting the Kansas Legislature

Republican Senator Vicki Schmidt (left) and Republican Representative-elect Brenda Dietrich celebrate their victories at a party in Topeka. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)
Republican Senator Vicki Schmidt (left) and Republican Representative-elect Brenda Dietrich celebrate their victories at a party in Topeka. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)

Republicans will continue to dominate the Kansas Legislature next year, but there will be an ideological shift away from the current conservative majority. Democrats picked up some seats. Many of the moderate-leaning Republicans who defeated conservatives in the August primary are also now headed to the Statehouse following Tuesday's election.

“You learned how to vote when you learned how to drive a car. If you want to go forward, you put the transmission in D and you vote for the Democrats,” Senator Anthony Hensley told a crowd in Topeka.

Hensley cruised to victory, and the House’s top Democrat, Tom Burroughs, continued the automotive theme. He says the ideological shift is a response to Republican Governor Sam Brownback.

“It’s a great turning point for this state. We’re moving forward. We’re going to leave Brownback in our rearview mirror. Most importantly, we’re going to leave a failed economy, failed gubernatorial policies,” says Burroughs.

Brenda Dietrich is one of the new Republican lawmakers. She was unopposed yesterday after winning a tough primary election earlier this year. She’s ready to shake things up when it comes to issues like taxes and the budget.

“You have to face the brutal facts. We know where we are economically. We know where our revenue stream is and is not, and we know what decisions we made to get us here today,” says Dietrich.

To her, that means all options are on the table, including reconsidering the tax cuts.

Dietrich is ready to cross party lines to build solutions.

“I really think if we can work together, collaboratively, and not draw lines in the sand and refuse to cross them, you can find a win-win. You can,” says Dietrich.

Some races between moderate-leaning Republicans and Democrats did get ugly at the end. Despite that, Democratic Senator Laura Kelly believes the two sides can still join forces and have a working majority on some issues.

“Campaigns are one thing, governing is another. I think the people who were elected in August and are likely to win tonight are statesman-like enough to put that aside and to do what’s in the best interest of Kansas citizens,” says Kelly.

Conservatives are still going to have significant numbers in the Legislature.

Incumbent Senate Ways and Means Chairman Ty Masterson is one of the conservative members who won reelection. But he’s echoing some of the things heard from his new, more centrist fellow lawmakers.

“I’ll work with anybody. That’s the beauty of the Legislature. I have some good friends that are Democrats, I have some good friends that are left-leaning Republicans. That’s what makes a good legislator, being able to work together to get something done,” says Masterson.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered about these new lawmakers.

“It’s going to be a big group of new people. We’re just going to have to get to know each other first and then begin to work together when we know what issues they think are important,” says Republican Fred Patton, who was reelected to the Kansas House.

He says it’s not always easy to mark someone with a term like “conservative” or “moderate.” Patton himself says he’s somewhere between the two. And, it will take time to figure out where all these new people will land on specific issues.

“You don’t know until people start voting where they fall. We’ll know soon enough,” says Patton.

With the results Tuesday, Democrats and moderate Republicans will have the numbers to form a coalition majority on some issues in both the Kansas Senate and House. In the House, that coalition could be sizeable. The division in the Senate will be much tighter, with Democrats and moderate Republicans only having a narrow majority on some issues.

Stephen Koranda is KPR's Statehouse reporter.