(TNS) — Moderate Republicans in Kansas made national headlines when they ousted a number of conservative lawmakers a year ago, ultimately contributing to the demise of Gov. Sam Brownback's tax cuts.
In another year, many will face their first reelection battle. Will they survive?
Moderates marked the one-year anniversary this week of the Republican primary election that paved the way for many of them to affect what happens in the Legislature.
They say the session that followed this spring exceeded their expectations with the rollback of the 2012 tax cuts, increased spending for education (though some say it's not enough), and the passage of Medicaid expansion, although Brownback vetoed that.
"I did not think that we would have the success that we did. I think there's still a lot of work to be done but I think what we've seen is a willingness for people to step up and do the right thing," said Brandi Fisher, director of the Mainstream Coalition, a group that works to elect centrist lawmakers.
The definition of a moderate is squishy, but estimates placed the net gain for moderates in the August 2016 primary at about a dozen seats in the House and about eight in the Senate. Candidates campaigned against Brownback and contended that more conservative lawmakers had undermined the state's fiscal health.
In the year since then, some took several votes to raise taxes in order to address a two-year budget shortfall of more than $900 million. Ultimately, the Legislature passed income tax increases paired with bigger tax deductions to generate about $1.2 billion over two years. Lawmakers forced the bill into law over Brownback's veto.
Conservatives are determined to change things.
Although senators face reelection every four years, terms for representatives are two years. That means moderate representatives could face conservative primary challengers in August 2018.
"Kansas voters are not going to be happy when they realize their income taxes were raised in historic fashion and done so retroactively," said Jeff Glendening, director of the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity.
Rep. Tom Cox, R-Shawnee, has developed a moderate reputation since he was elected last year. He beat a more conservative incumbent Republican in August 2016.
He said moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans and Democrats are all confident they are going to pick up more seats.
"All three can't do that. I think it's a huge unknown," Cox said.
"We passed a lot of things. We passed a tax increase, and rarely do legislators fare well after tax increases, in any state. That's the stark reality. But I'm proud so many of my colleagues came here with zero focus on reelection."
Moderate lawmakers may diverge in their response to the prospect of a primary fight. Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said research shows that in Congress, incumbent lawmakers become more ideological and loyal to their party heading into a primary.
But that may not be the case at the state level, and especially in Kansas, which has a part-time Legislature, he said. Moderates less likely to face a primary but more likely to face a strong Democrat in the general election may stay in the political center, while those contending with strong Republican opponents may begin to move further to the right.
"Some of these moderates could go in one direction, some could go in others," Miller said.
Added political pressure could come next spring as lawmakers grapple with major issues, including, potentially, school funding, the state prisons and the budget.
Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Republican who ousted a more conservative incumbent Republican last year, said she is cautiously optimistic that electoral politics won't infect the Legislature next year.
"Of course, we want to be re-elected," Sykes said. "But I think if you're doing the job and listening to the constituents and being open with them, then you're going to be re-elected for doing the job that you're doing."