TOPEKA, Kan. – Conservative Republicans who've been working to push GOP moderates out of state legislatures in a large section of the country have scored big victories in Kansas, where a state Senate that has been an obstacle to fiscal and social policy changes is likely to have a solid majority on the right next year.
Unlike other states, where results for conservatives have been mixed, Tuesday's primary in Kansas saw voters in GOP races oust seven incumbent moderate senators. An eighth, Senate President Steve Morris, a moderate Hugoton Republican, trailed his conservative opponent, likely marking the end of Morris' 20-year career as a legislator.
The targeted moderate incumbents outspent their conservative challengers, often by margins of 3-to-1 or more and received financial support from the state's largest teachers' union and labor groups normally aligned with Democrats. But conservatives had the backing of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the anti-tax, small-government group Americans for Prosperity, and the result was hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending by both candidates and political action committees.
Some GOP voters transferred their ongoing frustration with Democratic President Barack Obama and the federal health care law he championed to moderate GOP state senators. Some wanted the Senate to be more conservative and more in line with Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and the state House's right-leaning majority.
"I would like it as conservative as it can get," said Alex Yoho, a 56-year-old optician from Topeka, who voted for a conservative challenger in his local state Senate race. "You can't get too conservative for me."
Moderate GOP senators were targeted even before they joined Democrats in resisting Brownback's successful push for income tax cuts. The state will decrease its individual income tax rates for 2013 and exempt the owners of 191,000 businesses from all income taxes in hopes of stimulating the economy, but critics believe the changes will favor the highest earners. Also, with legislative researchers projecting that budget shortfalls will emerge by mid-2014, critics fear that big cuts in education and social services funding will result.
But the bipartisan coalition in the Senate also has prevented conservatives from going as far as they'd like toward lessening labor unions' political influence, remaking the appellate courts and moving new public employees into a 401(k)-style pension plan.
Some moderate Republicans saw the Kansas primary as a referendum on what they called a radical conservative agenda, and Kansas Democratic Party officials said hundreds of their party's members were concerned enough to reregister temporarily as Republicans to help moderate incumbents. Semi-retired health care workers Richard and Joey Giblin are Democrats from the Wichita-area town of Sedgwick who made such a switch.
"The fact the Brownback administration is trying to control all three branches of government was the factor in our switching parties," said 65-year-old Richard Giblin.
While similar contentious primary races were seen in states including Missouri and Texas, the push was most intense in Kansas. Conservatives defeated Sens. Pete Brungardt of Salina, Bob Marshall of Fort Scott, Tim Owens of Overland Park, Roger Reitz of Manhattan, Jean Schodorf of Wichita, Ruth Teichman of Stafford and Dwayne Umbarger of Thayer. Results in Morris' race showed him losing to state Rep. Larry Powell, a conservative Garden City Republican, who had about 52 percent of the vote.
The only conservative senator to lose a primary was Dick Kelsey of Goddard, but his opponent, Rep. Dan Kerschen of Garden Plain, also is a conservative.
If Republicans keep the seats they now have, conservatives would have 27 in the 40-member Senate. Elections in 2010 — which swept Brownback into the governor's office — left the House with a conservative GOP majority.
"I want a conservative Legislature," said Rich Walen, a 68-year-old consultant from Overland Park who voted against Owens. "We are getting so liberal that we are just handing everybody anything."
The federal health care law also appeared to be a factor. Conservative candidates, the Kansas Chamber and Americans for Prosperity mentioned it frequently in advertising.
The state has enacted a largely symbolic law saying no resident can be required to buy health insurance, a protest against the federal law's mandate that most Americans purchase it starting in 2014. A proposed health care "freedom" amendment to the state constitution failed to clear the Senate, though many moderates backed one version that was less aggressive than conservatives wanted.
"I just want to make sure that the conservatives are there," said Andrea McGee, a 61-year-old retired elementary school teacher from Topeka. "There are certain things you can compromise, but health care, abortion, pro-life, things like that, I want to make sure that those things are covered."
Associated Press writers Roxana Hegeman in Park City and Heather Hollingsworth in Overland Park contributed to this report.
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