Democrats on Monday criticized the mailings from the Kansas Chamber of Commerce's political action committee as unfair for suggesting state legislators could block the federal health care law enacted in 2010. But a similar tactic by the chamber — tapping frustration with Obama in Republican-leaning Kansas — helped conservatives oust moderate GOP senators in the August primary, setting up potential conservative dominance in the Legislature.
Jeff Glendening, the chamber's vice president of political affairs, said its PAC sent the mailings, starting last week, to potential voters in the districts of Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka and fellow Democratic Sens. Tom Holland of Baldwin City, Kelly Kultala of Kansas City and Laura Kelly of Topeka. Each mailing features photos of Obama and declares that the incumbent "failed to stop the Obama agenda at the Kansas border."
The mailings also say that the incumbents voted against allowing "Kansans a chance to opt-out of Obamacare." Glendening said that's a reference to their votes earlier this year against a proposed "Health Care Freedom" amendment to the state constitution. The measure was a largely symbolic protest against a key part of the federal law, requiring most Americans to purchase health insurance starting in 2014.
"It's a good issue that separates the mindsets of candidates we're opposing and those we're supporting," Glendening said. "Do you want somebody representing you in Topeka who thinks like Barack Obama or not?"
But Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon called the mailings "preposterous" and "ridiculous." Hensley said the proposed state amendment was "frivolous" because the federal government would still enforce the law if it were declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court upheld almost all of the law in June.
"It's very misleading, if not just downright false," Hensley said of the mailings' content. "It's a hoax on the voters."
Republicans go into the Nov. 6 election with majorities of 32-8 in the Senate and 92-33 in the House, but until the primary, GOP moderates led the Senate. If the GOP expands its majorities, conservatives are likely to have solid majorities in both chambers, giving conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback a freer hand in pushing his agenda.
In primary races, the chamber and other conservatives portrayed moderate GOP senators as too soft in opposition to the federal health care overhaul. Five of eight GOP incumbents who lost Senate primaries had voted against the proposed amendment to the state constitution; the Senate's vote prevented the measure from going on the ballot.
Hensley, Holland, Kultala and Kelly are facing strong challenges from Republicans. Hensley's opponent is Casey Moore, of Topeka, a conservative, self-employed commodities trader.
Glendening defended the mailing, saying that when lawmakers voted in February, the U.S. Supreme Court hadn't ruled on the federal overhaul, creating questions about whether states would have an opening to act. Also, supporters hoped that the amendment declaration that Kansans have a right to pay for health care directly and to refuse to buy insurance — would influence the justices' thinking.
Glendening also said the proposed amendment was valuable as "an opportunity for Kansans to voice their opposition."
Officials in both parties believe many potential voters in GOP-leaning Kansas are riled by the federal health care law. They include Jim Suwalski, the owner of a small tobacco shop inside the Hot Pockets bar in north Topeka.
Suwalski plans to vote for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, believes the federal law will increase insurance costs for employers and argues that Obama's policies hurt small businesses.
"He's going to kill us," Suwalski said.
Still, Wagnon called the chamber's tactics "shameless" and accused it of trying to scare undecided voters "back into the Republican fold."
"They did it in the primary, and it worked," Wagnon said.