A remarkable thing happened on Tuesday in Kansas. Conservatives defeated seven moderate Republican lawmakers in party primaries with an eighth incumbent trailing his opponent as votes continue to be counted.
Moderate Republicans in the state Senate revolted and blocked the plan. Brownback ended up maneuvering around the Senate by signing a bill that was not meant to be the final version, and which is projected to cause huge deficits.
While the GOP won control of both chambers of the Kansas legislature in 2010, 14 of the 32 state Senate Republicans are on the more moderate end of the spectrum. With the eight Democrats in the chamber, they can block conservative legislation. Moderates in the Senate also blocked Brownback and the House on redistricting, leading the maps to end up in court, and on education funding.
So with the governor’s blessing, two groups backed by the billionaire libertarian Koch brothers — Americans for Prosperity and the local Chamber of Commerce — spent hundreds of thousands of dollars backing conservative challengers to the upper chamber’s moderates. (Koch Industries has backed Brownback’s career for over a decade.)
Brownback turned the race into a referendum on his own tenure and on the future of the Kansas GOP. While Brownback touted conservatives, former governor Bill Graves (R) came back to the state to campaign for the moderates.
While moderates and conservatives in the Kansas GOP have fought for years (see “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” published in 2004), the amount of money and the high-profile campaigning this cycle is new.
“There’s a war,” state Senate President Steve Morris, a moderate Republican, told the Associated Press before the primary. “It’s probably as bad as I’ve seen it.”
The conservatives won. As votes are counted, Morris appears to be headed toward defeat. And moderates in other states might start worrying for their own futures.
After the 2010 wave, Republicans had control of 26 state legislatures. But in many of those states, conservative-leaning legislation has been stymied by internal party splits.
Frustrated by legislation that they deem too moderate, some GOP-aligned groups are now focused on targeting Republicans in primaries.
No state has seen an overturn as dramatic as the one in Kansas. But rifts are opening up in state legislatures around the country. According to Ballotpedia, an online encyclopedia of state politics, 73 Republican state lawmakers have lost to challengers this cycle.
“It generally seems to be a case of more conservative candidates being elected,” said Geoff Pallay, Ballotpedia’s special projects directory. While liberals have also knocked off some moderate Democrats, he said, “it seems to be happening much more often in Republican districts.”
Not only did Ted Cruz defeat establishment-backed Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in a Texas Senate primary runoff last week, he helped conservative Dr. Donna Campbell defeat long-time state Sen. Jeff Wentworth. Two state House committee chairmen were also defeated by tea party challengers.
In Oklahoma, where Republican lawmakers blocked an attempt by Gov. Mary Fallin (R) to lower the income tax, tea party activists targeted numerous GOP incumbents in the state legislature; one was defeated.
Low-turnout state legislative primaries are also an ideal place for well-funded interest groups to send a message. The National Rifle Association helped defeat the chairwoman of the Republican Caucus in Tennessee’s state house last week after she failed to push legislation that would allow workers to store guns in company lots.
The American Conservative Union, which rates the purity of lawmakers around the country, is now starting to rank state legislators.
“It’s not just Kansas,” said Curtis Ellis of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, which targets incumbents of both parties. “Clearly Republican voters understand that state legislatures are where the action is.”