By John Celock
Four years after being swept out of power by conservatives, moderate Republicans bounced back to win legislative primaries Tuesday night.
Moderate candidates unseated conservative Republicans in House and Senate primaries around the state. The primary hotbed for moderate wins was in the Johnson County suburbs of Kansas City, where the debate over the state’s education spending and policy was largely centered. Many of the moderates who won were endorsed by the Kansas National Education Association and education oriented groups, with moderates having professional backgrounds in education or ties to parent groups.
Education policy has been central to the Kansas political debate for several years with court cases and changes to the state’s school finance formula. Earlier this year, Kansas lawmakers approved a new school funding plan in response to a state Supreme Court order that could have closed the state’s public schools. The debate, which was at the center of the 2012 conservative rise, led to the increased influence of the KNEA and parent groups in the state’s political sphere.
In Reno County, Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce (R-Hutchinson) was defeated by former Hutchinson Community College President Ed Berger. Berger gathered 6157 votes to 4602 votes for Bruce. The defeat ends Bruce’s campaign to unseat Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) when the new Legislature convenes in January. Berger is unopposed in the general election.
In Johnson County, veteran PTA leader Dinah Sykes unseated first term Sen. Greg Smith (R-Overland Park), a retired police officer turned teacher, 4380 votes to 3188 votes. The Sykes/Smith race was a top priority for moderates around the state, with Sykes entering the race over a year ago. Smith, who was a top conservative challenger four years ago, had focused much of his Senate tenure on public safety issues including serving as chairman of the Senate Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee. But the election pivoted largely on education policy.
Sykes now faces Democrat Logan Healey in November. Healey easily defeated Michael Czerniewski in the primary with 82 percent of the vote.
Sen. Jeff Melcher (R-Leawood) went down to defeat to former Overland Park Councilman John Skubal. Skubal won 5526 votes to 4282 to Melcher in another race dominated by education issues. Skubal had made his backing by Stand Up Blue Valley, a PTA affiliated political group that focused on education policy in several districts straddling the Blue Valley School District, the top-performing district in the state. Skubal faces Democrat Skip Fannen in November.
In another win for Stand Up Blue Valley, moderate Republican Jan Kessinger defeated Rep. Rob Bruchman (R-Overland Park) 2226 votes to 1863 votes. The race between the two also centered largely on education policy. Kessinger faces Democrat Christopher McQueeny in November.
In central Kansas, Sen. Tom Arpke (R-Salina), the chairman of the Senate Education Budget Subcommittee, was defeated for reelection by Saline County Commissioner Randall Hardy. Hardy gathered 4280 votes to 3836 fro Arpke and 1088 for John Price. Arpke, the vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, lost Saline County to Hardy, while winning in Dickinson County. Hardy will face Saline County Clerk Don Merriman (D) in November.
Four years after Sen. Larry Powell (R-Garden City) upset then Senate President Steve Morris, a leading moderate Republican, in the biggest primary win for conservatives, Powell was shown the door by voters. Powell was defeated in his southwestern Kansas district by Rep. John Doll Tuesday night. Doll won 5531 votes to 4162 votes for Powell.
In an open state Senate race in a rural district on the Oklahoma border, Rep. Virgil Peck (R-Tyro), one of the state’s most conservative lawmakers, was defeated by former Parsons City Commissioner Dan Goddard for the GOP nomination. Goddard earned 3469 votes to 3302 votes for Peck. Peck is known for a 2011 comment where he suggested in a House Appropriations Committee meeting that the state shoot illegal immigrants from helicopters like “feral hogs.” Peck unsuccessfully challenged House Speaker Ray Merrick (R-Stilwell) following the 2014 election.
Other key GOP primary results around the state.
Patty Markley defeated Rep. Craig McPherson 1515 votes to 1098 votes.
Rep. Keith Esau defeated challenger Leesa Gabel 1360 votes to 1112 votes.
Rep. Erin Davis defeated challenger Kim Palcic 911 votes to 385 votes with 153 votes for Bo Dostal.
Tom Cox defeated Rep. Brett Hildabrand 1902 votes to 1189 votes.
Dorothy Hughes, a moderate, defeated conservative Neil Melton 1646 votes to 1061 votes in the race to succeed Rep. Barbara Bollier (R), who is seeking an open Senate seat.
Joy Koesten defeated Rep. Jerry Lunn (R) 1555 votes to 1316 votes.
House Majority Whip Willie Dove narrowly hung on to his seat over Mitra Templin with 508 votes to 500 votes with 35 votes for Nathan Lucas.
Shelee Brim defeated Rep. Charles Macheers 954 votes to 753 votes with 497 votes for Owen Donohue.