Four years ago, Gov. Sam Brownback helped lead a successful ultra-conservative raid on Kansas Legislature seats held by moderate Republicans in Johnson County.
Now it’s 2016 and an amazing and positive turnaround has happened in the county.
After Brownback and his allies helped ruin Kansas’ economy and undermined the state’s educational and social policies, moderate Republicans are on the rise after defeating several ultra-con incumbents in August.
Highly qualified GOP challengers such as Senate candidates John Skubal and Dinah Sykes plus House candidates Tom Cox, Jan Kessinger and Dorothy Hughes are sending the message that Brownback’s reckless policies won’t go far in the 2017 session. All five deserve election on Nov. 8.
But look, over here: Armed with very competent candidates, Democrats are trying to wrest some seats now held by ultra-conservative GOP incumbents. That’s great news.
That latter group includes Senate challengers Don McGuire, Chris Morrow, Vicki Hiatt and Spencer Kerfoot. Over in the House, R. Paul McCorkle, Cindy Holscher and Brett Parker are hoping to unseat Republicans. All seven deserve election this fall. (Please read my full list of House and Senate endorsements.)
However — and this is the key to the entire narrative in Johnson County right now — the Democrats want more.
Party leaders, candidates and regular Democratic voters are boldly fighting — in Facebook posts, on Twitter, in campaign literature and in door-to-door combat — to nab some specific seats that moderate Republicans are seeking as well.
The Democrats’ general arguments go this way: They need to send as many anti-Brownback votes to Topeka as possible. Turn the county blue, I hear time after time, especially since you can’t trust even the moderate Republicans to stick up for the people when fights break out with Brownback. Democrats are confident they can defeat even moderate Republicans, especially in the northeast part of the county.
Supporters of moderate Republicans are understandably miffed, especially after all they have done to try to hold the line on Brownback’s horrible policies. The best examples include state Reps. Melissa Rooker, Stephanie Clayton and Linda Gallagher (all of whom have earned re-election.)
Moderates argue that electing more of them can help them hold a majority of GOP seats in the entire Kansas House and Senate. In turn, that could help them name the next House Speaker and Senate President, as well as hold crucial committee assignments. Plus, the Democrats won’t win enough seats in the rest of Kansas to be a majority in either the House or Senate.
In short, Johnson County is now seeing the kind of political war that hasn’t really occurred there for many years.
Some of this is good. It’s energizing the bases of both parties. More people will go to vote.
The downside of this skirmishing is that it could poison the well, at least for a while, as the eventual victors on the Democratic and moderate Republican sides position themselves to push back against Brownback next year.
Here are specific examples of where the most infighting is occurring.
House, 17th District: Republican Tom Cox is facing Democrat Helen Stoll. Cox gets a slight nod in my book for beating GOP incumbent Brett Hildabrand in the primary and for being one of the earliest proponents of attacking the Brownback record. As top Democrats point out, Stoll also has a good resume. In talking to people in both parties, I don’t hear much negative about either person. Voters could be confident they are sending a responsible person to Topeka by choosing either one.
House, 21st District: Republican Dorothy Hughes squares off against Democrat Jerry Stogsdill. As I have noted repeatedly, this is the closest race in the county to call for me. I really like Hughes’ health policy experience and her energy level of going to Topeka to make a positive difference. Stogsdill is pursuing this seat for the right reason: to defend public education, using his strong background on the issue. This is the hottest flash point for many Democrats, who think Stogsdill has paid his dues — while they also cast stones at Hughes for allegedly not being a moderate Republican. Once again, voters could go either way and get an exceptional person to represent them.
Senate, 7th District: Republican Barbara Bollier gave up her House seat to seek this one, squaring off against Democrat Megan England. Bollier is my clear choice, especially given that she has a strong record on education. She has served in the Legislature, so you can tell if her claim to be a real moderate is true. England gained political experience on the Roeland Park City Council, but not nearly enough for voters to give up on Bollier.
Senate, 21st District: Republican Dinah Sykes is embroiled in a battle with Democrat Logan Heley. Sykes is absolutely the right choice for that district as well as for the state of Kansas.
Sykes took on one of the hardest challenges in the August primaries of unseating GOP conservative Greg Smith. Sykes won with a combination of stressing her record as an active mom of two school-aged children and a savvy attack on Smith’s abysmal record.
Heley is a young person who fits the mold of being an aggressive campaigner and raiser of money — both of which are helping him in this race — without the important life experiences of his challenger. True, if Sykes had lost to Smith — which many had once expected — Heley would be the right person for the job if only to get rid of Smith’s negative influence in the state capital.
But that didn’t happen.
This fall, voters in Johnson County have excellent reasons to send Sykes and a strong contingent of other moderate Republicans to the state Capitol.
In addition, voters ought to embrace many in the best Democratic lineup of candidates in years to get rid of ultra-conservative Republicans.
Johnson County needs top-notch elected officials in Topeka to protect its schools, its economic development reputation, its roads and its very future from Brownback’s destructive machinations.