Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Media Misreading Kansas Primary Results

If you are a casual follower of Kansas politics, and read this article in the Topeka Capital Journal or read this editorial at Real Clear Politics, you would think that moderates are making massive gains in Kansas, and that conservatives are in full scale retreat.

To borrow the trademark line from ESPN College Football Analyst Lee Corso, "not so fast my friend".

The Capital Journal article, written by James Carlson, basically stated that moderates "appeared likely to retain leadership in the Kansas Senate" after the August 5 primary elections. In the article, Loran Smith, a political science professor at Washburn said "Social conservatives have to be licking their wounds." He also said, according to the article, that conservative victories, "were a wash."


Now, I don't know Mr. Smith, but it seems to me that the kind professor, as well as Mr. Carlson, need to do some more analysis of the primary election results as well as take a look at the upcoming general election. Because, if they did, they'd realize that moderates are actually hanging onto leadership by a thread, due to the fact that there are strong conservative challengers to five incumbent Democrats, with a sixth being challenged by a candidate who although was not endorsed by the Kansas Republican Assembly, did earn the endorsement of Kansans For Life.

Simply, the Capital Journal article focuses too much on the conservative challengers failing to unseat moderate incumbents, and less on the competitive general election races ahead. While none of the conservative challengers to moderate incumbents won, that conservatives did win almost every open seat or where there was a primary against a vulnerable Democrat. In fact, in races where the conservative had any money or name ID -- District 10 with Mary Pilcher Cook, District 37 with Jeff Colyer, District 16 with Ty Masterson, or District 32 with Steve Abrams, and District 18 with James Zeller, the conservative won -- and won handily. The article ignores the fact that conservatives who lost were expected to -- because they were severaly under-funded compared to their incumbent moderates, who could also campaign on their experience chairmanships. Still, despite this, Pete Brungardt nearly lost to Tom Arpke, and Ruth Teichman had quite a fight with Andrew Evans.

So, Mr. Smith, how exactly are conservatives licking their wounds? That is ridiculous on its face. Conservatives put some of their most prominent and strongest voices from the House -- Pilcher Cook, Colyer, and Masterson (plus Kelsey, who is running in Sen. Phil Journey's seat)-- in positions where they are heavily favored to win their seats.

Let's examine the leadership situation more carefully:

The article correctly points out that Steve Morris won the President's seat by a vote of 17-13 (Republicans hold 30 of the 40 seats, currently). It also correctly points out that out of the liberal Republican incumbents challenged by conservatives in primaries, they all held on.

However, the article ignores several key points:

1. Conservative victories in November. Strong conservative candidates are challenging incumbent Democrats or Democratic-held seats in four locations: District 5 (Fitzgerald vs. Kultala), District 18 (Zeller vs. Kelly), District 32 (Abrams vs. Goodwin) and District 19 (Weber vs. Hensley). In addition, in District 13, KFL-endorsed Bob Marshall is running against Patty Horgan. This was Jim Barone's old seat. Marshall defeated Jacob La Turner, who was also endorsed by KFL but the preferred candidate by the KRA, in the primary. In Districts 5, 18, 32, and 13, the margin was slim last time -- 800 votes in District 5, 98 in Dist 18, about 220 in Dist 32, and about 300 in Dist 13.

Let's say Fitzgerald, Abrams, and and Zeller all won but the others lost. This would take the Republican number to 33, and conservative number to 16, just ONE short of the 17 it would take to win a leadership battle. If just two of the three won, conservatives would hold control of 15 of 32, just one vote short to force a tie and two to win. If even just ONE won, conservatives would have 14 out of 31, and just two short, again, to win.

2. Not all of the "Morris 17" are solid. In fact, many estimate up to five of those who voted for Morris last time could be in play this time. In fact, some of these candidates were endorsed by either KFL or even the KRA. Things change in four years. If conservatives are a vote or two away, do you not think these "five in play" would be offered things like chairmanships, etc.?

Now, is this a guarantee that conservatives will win control? No, not at all. A conservative could lose a race in the general, such as Julia Lynn to Ron Wimmer. But, so could a moderate like Tim Owens, who faces a tough Democrat in Judy Macy. However, the moderates appear to have a lid in seats at about 17, while conservatives have a lot of room to grow.

Of broader significane and worthy of discussion is the point discussed in the second article at Real Clear Politics, written by Reid Wilson. Entitled "What's Wrong With Kansas Republicans?", the article largely makes the case that moderates are on the rise in Kansas, while conservatives are falling from power. The article again focuses on the conservative challengers to moderate incumbents losing last Tuesday and also focuses on the losses by Jim Ryun and Phill Kline. It also claims that the rift between conservatives and moderates is declining in Kansas because moderates have reasserted control. Huh?

This simpleton approach again ignores reality.

First of all, again, incumbent committee chairs with huge money advantages should win their primaries! The fact that one of them, the one with the most competitive challenger -- Pete Brungardt -- nearly lost, and a second, Ruth Teichman, could only get 57%, should be very alarming for moderates. It is not some huge sign of conservative doom that these moderate incumbents held on.

Second of all, in hotly contested open Senate seats where a well known conservative was running, the conservative won and won EASILY. Mary Pilcher Cook won 57% of the vote vs. well-known liberal State Board of Education Member Sue Gamble, in a hotly contested race where the KTRM spent thousands on hate pieces trying to smear Pilcher Cook. Jeff Colyer won 70%. Ty Masterson won 60%. Steve Abrams won 60%. James Zeller won over 70%. Steve Fitzgerald was unopposed. Dick Kelsey was unoppposed. Only in District 8, where Rep. Tim Owens defeated Rep. Ben Hodge (who had just moved into the district), did a moderate win an open seat. Let's review: in nearly every open seat where a strong conservative ran, the conservative won easily. In one seat where a moderate incumbent held a huge money advantages, he barely won. And in the fall, the conservatives could pick up as many as 3-4 seats, putting mods in danger of losing control of the Senate leadership, while conservatives still retain easy control of the House leadership. In the Shawnee County DA race, conservative Eric Rucker, former deputy to Kline, easily defeated incumbent DA Robert Hecht. How are the moderates on the rise again?

Third of all, in regards to Kline and Ryun -- both involved more defeats of the candidates themselves more than conservatives in general. In Kline's case, you had a candidate, due to his work, who had become a lightning rod, and the article ignores that Steve Howe was supported by many conservative legislators and activists, including Senator Sam Brownback, who the article cites as part of the conservative wing in dissent. Steve Howe is widely regarded a conservative, and has campaigned as one who is pro-life. In the latter case, with Jim Ryun, you had a candidate who was widely regarded as getting out too late in 2006, and that case, he still only lost by a little over 1000 votes to a well-liked and well-known candidate in Lynn Jenkins. If anything the defeat of Kline and Ryun, who had been around since the early 1990's, was a call for fresh faces, not a movement against conservatives -- as seen by strong conservatives winning in open seats, as mentioned above. So how are the moderates on the rise again?

Finally, there is the issue of the split. If the split is getting any better, it is not because of moderates ascending to power, but due to some of them leaving the party to run as Democrats (Neighbor, Benlon, Wimmer, Morrison, Guinn) meaning the party doesn't have to worry about pleasing them anymore. However, with recent hate mailings by KTRM backfiring but also showing their true motivation/thinking, the divide is likely to grow, not lessen, particularly if the battle for Senate leadership is as tight as it could be.

In summary, the media shouldn't be jumping on the "conservatives in down fall" theme nor should the moderates be counting their chickens in the Senate. If anything, depending on how the fall campaign goes, conservatives are on the verge of making gains in Kansas.