Democratic governor eager to break two-thirds conservative majorities
TOPEKA — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly launched a political action committee Monday to support election of moderate Republican and Democratic candidates to the Kansas Legislature and loosen the policy grip of conservative lawmakers at the Capitol.
Kelly, who dispatched GOP challengers Kris Kobach and Derek Schmidt in back-to-back campaigns, cannot seek reelection in 2026. But the state’s second-term chief executive would like to turn down the volume of opposition to her reform priorities in the 2024, 2025 and 2026 legislative sessions.
Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate, a mathematical reality frustrating to Kelly. The 165 seats are up for grabs in 2024, and the governor would flex her PAC’s financial muscle in the August primary and November general elections.
“It is a bipartisan effort to elect moderates to both the House and Senate here in Topeka,” Kelly said during the Kansas Reflector podcast. “We’re calling it, matter of fact, the Middle of the Road PAC.”
She’s not breaking new ground by creating a PAC to exert influence on legislative contests. For example, Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius led Bluestem Fund while it spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to bankroll mail and radio advertising for Democratic candidates. U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, the Kansas Republican who left Congress in 2019, formed a PAC in 2016 to raise money for state legislative candidates.
“I’ve always been middle of the road,” Kelly said. “That’s how I’ve governed — by bringing Democrats and Republicans together to meet in the middle. Kansans expect their leaders to work together and pass common sense policies like expanding Medicaid, funding our schools and cutting taxes to help our families. This PAC will support Kansas leaders who put politics aside and work with me to deliver policies that help families thrive.”
Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican often critical of Kelly for governing from the “radical left” and marching to the beat of President Joe Biden, has accused the governor of failure to adhere to a campaign pledge to meet the Legislature in the middle.
“We’d love to meet in the middle and have those words have meaning,” Masterson said at outset of this year’s legislative session.
Kelly said initiatives to fully fund K-12 public schools, implement a 10-year state transportation program or build job opportunities through economic development were accomplished through bipartisan compromise at the statehouse. The challenge, she said, was convincing legislative majorities to fairly consider change popular among Kansans based on polling by Fort Hays State University, including expansion of eligibility for Medicaid.
Kelly said GOP leaders in the Capitol had turned aside five different options for expanding Medicaid. She promised to seek permission of legislators again in 2024 for authority to provide more than 100,000 lower-income adults and their children health coverage through the KanCare program jointly funded by federal and state government.
“The reason we haven’t been able to get that done is because we have not been able to break through the supermajority or the leadership in the Kansas House and in the Kansas Senate,” Kelly said. “In order to continue to push forward policies that I believe most Kansans agree with — I think anywhere between 70% to 80% of people want Medicaid expansion — it’s going to be absolutely necessary for us to break that supermajority in the House and the Senate and send a very loud message to leadership that they need to give their caucuses an opportunity to vote for Medicaid expansion.”
Republicans’ numerical advantage in the Senate and House has remained unbroken for 30 years, but the veto power of the Democratic governor was been felt by conservative Republicans.
“We have a supermajority of Republicans in the House and a supermajority in the Senate, but we have a Democratic governor. There are times when we can work together on things, but there’s a lot of times when it doesn’t go so well,” said House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican.
In a recent question-and-answer article with the National Conference of State Legislatures, Hawkins was critical of Kelly for vetoing 37 pieces of legislation and the GOP majority’s ability to override only 11.
Voice of centrists
Kelly said the Legislature would better serve the state’s 2.9 million residents by involving more moderates in forming, debating and voting on key issues.
The influence of centrist GOP lawmakers in Kansas has been diminished since 2012 when Republican Gov. Sam Brownback helped finance conservative candidates who successfully challenged moderate incumbent Republicans. Movement to the political right was most profound in the Senate.
“When I did come into the state Senate there were a number of moderate Republicans and I worked very closely with the moderate Republicans to get a lot of good things done,” the governor said. “Right now we’ve got a state Legislature that really does not reflect the vast majority of Kansans values, and we need to ensure that it does.”
Elevating the voice of Kansas moderates in the Capitol could influence development of education, tax, reproductive health and LGBTQ issues, Kelly said.
On abortion, the Legislature voted with two-thirds majorities to place on statewide ballots one year ago a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that could have been used to reduce access to abortion. The amendment was defeated in a landslide vote that preserved a Kansas Supreme Court decision anchored in Kansas’ right to bodily autonomy, including the option of ending a pregnancy.
“It was nearly 60% and what’s even more remarkable of that is that that was on the primary ballot,” Kelly said of the abortion amendment’s demise. “Usually, nobody goes to vote in primaries, except for usually the rather conservative wing of the Republican Party.”
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