Published October 29th, 2014 at 3:46 PM
Rep. Jim Ward is a Wichita Democrat whose party loyalty has rarely been questioned, but even he says his party is likely to pick up only a few House seats in next week’s election.
But he said a few Democratic victories coupled with a few more by Republican moderates might be enough to swing the chamber currently controlled by conservative Republicans more toward the middle.
“I think three or four votes would give us a working majority, at least on some of the big stuff,” Ward said.
With down-to-the-wire races for governor and U.S. Senate in Kansas, less attention is being paid to the contests for seats in the 125-member Kansas House. But a few key races could decide whether the House becomes a more predictable counterbalance to a Senate led by conservatives.
There were 33 Democrats in the House this year, a number that dropped to 32 after the session when Hutchinson Rep. Jan Pauls switched parties over disagreements on social issues.
The number of Republicans who are willing to vote with Democrats on contentious legislation is harder to pin down and shifts depending on the topic. But several votes from the 2014 session illustrate that a few more moderate Republicans could have changed the outcome.
When Ward offered an amendment to remove Medicare from a health care compact bill last session, the change failed by a 57-61 vote, with almost 30 Republicans voting with the Democrats.
A high-stakes school finance bill that eliminated state-mandated due process for tenured teachers squeezed through the House 63-57 over the objections of moderate Republicans and Democrats.
Moderate Republicans and Democrats joined with a handful of more conservative Republicans from rural areas to vote down proposed elimination of the state’s renewable energy standards, 63-60.
Conservatives blocked consideration of Medicaid expansion in the 2014 session but a change in the balance of power in the House would likely give the issue more traction. The Kansas Hospital Association is working on an expansion proposal that it will push to have considered during the 2015 session, which begins in January.
Two of the House’s most conservative members — Rep. Josh Powell of Topeka and Rep. Allan Rothlisberg of Grandview Plaza — lost in the Republican primary, potentially narrowing the gap.
Ward said he thinks Democrats can pick up seats against some of the remaining conservative Republicans in certain districts, but some Democratic incumbents are vulnerable to conservative Republican challenges in others.
That leaves about 10 key races to decide who emerges with what Ward called “that working majority”:
If enough of these races go their way, moderate Republicans and Democrats could wield sufficient power to influence the legislative agenda. But members of both groups say it’s unlikely that they would attempt to deny conservative Republican Speaker Ray Merrick a second term as speaker, assuming he wins re-election.
A Republican who needs a large block of Democratic votes to win the job would face practical problems governing his or her caucus, Ward said.
Rep. Tom Moxley, a moderate Republican from Council Grove, concurred.
“I’ve heard talk, but I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation,” Moxley said.
Moxley said that though their political philosophies differ, he respects Merrick’s honesty.
Bill Otto, a former Republican House member from Coffey County seeking to return as an independent, is ready to challenge convention if he prevails in a three-way race against incumbent Republican Peggy Mast and Democrat Teresa Briggs.
“I wouldn’t be above running against the speaker as an independent,” said Otto, a former teacher.
Otto, with his “No bull zone” slogan, was considered one of the chamber’s more colorful personalities from 2005 to 2012. He lost to Mast, currently the speaker pro-tem, when redistricting forced the two incumbents to square off in a Republican primary.
If elected as an independent, Otto said he wouldn’t be beholden to either party. That would allow him to bridge the partisan gap as speaker by naming both Republicans and Democrats to lead committees.
“I really think it’s time we do something like look at the parties and pick the best person,” Otto said.
Andy Marso is a health reporter with Heartland Health Monitor, a reporting collaboration among KCUR Public Radio, KCPT Public Television, KHI News Service and Kansas Public Radio. He is based at KCUR. Click here for the original article.