KansasLiberty.com: Key conservative support vital to Senate leadership

Kansas Liberty: 11 December 2008

Kansas Senate leadership battle turned on the votes of some unlikely allies

Key conservatives’ support vital to Senate leadership

The recent re-election of Kansas’ liberal Senate leadership – Stephen Morris as president, John Vratil as vice-president, and Derek Schmidt as majority leader – appeared to have left Senate conservatives frustrated and a little surprised.

After picking up a little strength in the November elections, conservatives thought Morris and Vratil might be vulnerable, especially after Morris told a New York Times reporter that he had no serious disagreements with Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and after a watchdog group, the Kansas Taxpayers Network, put Vratil near the bottom of Senate Republicans’ lifetime ratings.

But when the secret-ballot vote was tallied, Morris – and his allies, Vratil and Schmidt – had prevailed over a conservative challenge led by Susan Wagle.

The vote stunned many conservatives – not so much because they lost, but because of the names of some of the senators who voted to support the Republican liberals.

Although voting for the leadership positions was conducted by secret ballot, a post on the Americans for Prosperity’s “Kansas Blog” claimed votes to retain liberal Republicans in their leadership roles came not only from a roster of familiar allies, but also from a few key conservatives who had been won over to support Morris and Vratil.

According to Americans for Prosperity, Pat Apple, Jim Barnett, Pete Brungardt, Jay Emler, Julia Lynn, Carolyn McGinn, Bob Marshall, Steve Morris, Tim Owens, Roger Reitz, Derek Schmidt, Vicki Schmidt, Jean Schodorf, Mark Taddiken, Ruth Teichman, Dwayne Umbarger, John Vratil and David Wysong all voted to retain Morris.

On the other side: Steve Abrams, Karin Brownlee, Terry Bruce, Jeff Colyer, Mary Pilcher-Cook, Les Donovan, Tim Huelskamp, Dick Kelsey, Ty Masterson, Ralph Ostmeyer, Mike Petersen, Dennis Pyle and, in support of her own cause, Susan Wagle.

Their reasons for voting as they did often followed a predictable pattern – but not always.

Bob Marshall of Pittsburg said he voted to retain the leadership positions because of the experience of Morris, Vratil and Schmidt.

“Because of the revenue situation and the cash situation in the state of Kansas, we need the most experienced leadership possible,” Marshall told Kansas Liberty. “I think that’s pretty much the way everyone felt, as the existing leadership was voted back into their positions.”

Tim Owens, a former House member from Overland Park, said he voted for Morris and Vratil because he felt they had done a good job in their positions in the past.

“I just didn’t see any reason to change the direction that the Senate was going,” Owens told Kansas Liberty.

As a representative, Owens had previously worked with Morris, Sebelius and liberal House Republicans and Democrats to push through the education super-funding bill of 2005 that added hundreds of millions to the state’s education budget.

The support of Owens and Marshall had been expected. But Wagle’s challenge hinged on keeping the support of senators who normally took conservative positions, either out of fiscal concerns, social principles or both. That didn’t happen.

For example, Julia Lynn, of Olathe, a self-proclaimed conservative, also voted to keep the liberal Republicans in their leadership positions.

“What I looked at was how much experience they had with the budget and their breadth of knowledge, and the current leadership obviously had a depth of operational knowledge,” Lynn told Kansas Liberty.

During the campaign, Lynn admitted she had received substantial financial help from the Kansas Republican Senatorial Committee, controlled by Morris and Vratil. Lynn didn’t disclose the amount, but records show that she received far more from the Kansas Republican Senatorial Committee than any other candidate – perhaps as much as $50,000, including three contributions totaling $25,000.

In the 2008 Senate Republican Leadership Committee finance reports, there were substantial expenditures given with Lynn, among others, listed as a recipient.

  • On Oct. 15, an expenditure of $49,576 was allocated by the Senate Republican Leadership Committee with purpose of postage for candidates Morgan, Pine, Marshall, Lynn, Reitz and Brungardt.
  • Lynn was also listed along with others as a recipient of a $13,471 expenditure on Oct. 10 and a $7,582 expenditure on Oct. 15.
  • Later, on Oct. 22, Lynn was listed twice, once in a $25,664 expenditure, and once in a $9,797 expenditure.

Lynn said the financial assistance during her campaign had absolutely nothing to do with her decision to vote for Morris and Vratil, and to support Schmidt.

“The goal was to keep the seat in Republican hands, and I think they were concerned with the possibilities of me going against a very well-known, high-profile candidate,” Lynn said. “Even though they knew I was a strong candidate, money can sometimes buy elections unfortunately, and they wanted me back. They know I am a conservative and pro-life but they looked beyond all of that and decided to make sure they supported me.”

Lynn said she spent more than $200,000 – a record – on her campaign, and, as Kansas Libertypreviously reported, that the Senate Republican Leadership Committee had helped her with direct cash contributions and mailing polls.

The Senate leadership also donated more than $45,000 to a liberal organization, Kansans for a Traditional Republican Majority, to help defeat conservatives in the primaries. The group used the money to falsely accuse its opponents of being associated with the Ku Klux Klan and of preventing parents from seeking help for sick children.

Lynn replaced conservative Republican Kay O’Connor, who retired after 13 years in the Legislature. O’Connor initially endorsed Lynn but later withdrew her endorsement after learning Lynn was supporting moderate Republicans for Senate leadership.

O’Connor, who decided not to vote for Lynn or her opponent Ron Wimmer in the 2008 election, told Kansas Liberty she felt “totally and utterly betrayed” by Lynn’s votes for Morris and Vratil.

“She did everything she could to convince me two years ago that she was a pro-life conservative ‘just like me’ and she said everything I wanted to hear I guess,” O’Connor said. “And now she has thrown her base under the bus, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she draws conservative opposition in two years.”

O’Connor said she thought Lynn and other conservative Republicans voted to keep Morris and Vratil in power for personal gain.

“The lack of integrity is glaring,” O’Connor said. “The leadership will give them money or a power position or both, as that’s how they get conservatives to vote for them. And these poor, foolish conservatives who sell themselves for chairmanship don’t realize that you cannot get anything out of committee without a majority. I never got a chairmanship because I was not for sale.”

Lynn wasn’t the only conservative who attracted conservative ire.

Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said he decided against supporting Morris and Vratil because of his disagreement with the liberal positions they had on certain issues.

“My politics tend to be more conservative and we have a pretty big budget shortfall ahead of us, and I thought Wagle could work better with the House in keeping the spending down,” Masterson told Kansas Liberty. “As far as Sen. Vratil goes, I disagree with him on social issues, as he is pro-choice and I am pro-life, and I just felt the other ticket was more in line with me politically and philosophically,” he said.

“What surprised me the most was Jim Barnett,” he said. “I would have probably put him on the list of most least likely to vote for them.”

Barnett had chosen Morris’ opponent, Susan Wagle, as his running mate during his campaign for Kansas governor in 2006.  He ran as a conservative.

Barnett did not respond to Kansas Liberty’s requests for comments.

Ralph Ostmeyer, of Grinnell, joined those who voted against retaining Morris and Vratil.

“I am friends with Mr. Morris, but I did have to tell him that I wasn’t voting for him,” Ostmeyer told Kansas Liberty. “I was very concerned all along that we spent too much money. I was disappointed that the conservatives never had a chance.”

They also ended up with almost no chance to exert influence at the top of Senate committees, since, not surprisingly, those who backed Morris and Vratil reaped the assignment rewards.

The Americans for Prosperity list of legislators who supported Vratil and Morris includes 18 senators, and from that list of legislators there were 13 chair appointments made and 12 vice-chair appointments.  Lynn received two of those.

From the 13 legislators expected to have voted against Morris and Vratil, there was one chair appointment and four vice-chair appointments.

Morris and Vratil did not respond to Kansas Liberty’s requests for comments.

It remains to be seen how the Senate leadership will continue its tradition of working with Sebelius, especially now that the state faces a mammoth financial crisis caused, at least in part, by the fiscal policies endorsed by Morris and Vratil.

At least initially, both Morris and Vratil declined to rule out raising taxes to remedy the budget crisis. Lately, Vratil’s position appears to have softened. But Morris told the Associated PressWednesday that he is supporting a replacement for the expiring 10-year transportation plan despite the budget crisis.

“We obviously have very little money to do anything, but once it is in place that sends a message to the people, even if we have to start slow for the first couple of years,” Morris told the wire service. “We may have to start slow and implement bigger projects down the road, but if that is the case, so be it.”

Some interpreted Morris’ comments as a hint that tax increases may be on the horizon.

That won’t sit well with some in the Senate. For example, Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, said one of the main reasons he did not vote for the current leadership was because he did not support tax increases.

“I think we needed something different given the spending we have seen in the last four years and how can we continue with that and solve this problem,” Pyle told Kansas Liberty. “I think they will raise taxes and that they have a plan, whether they will make that public or not. I think you will see them propose transportation, education, really all the issues they can use to get spending. I would guess the fact that they spent like they did, they are willing to raise taxes and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.”

Pyle said there could be a variety of reasons why some of the Republicans who ran on a conservative platform voted for Vratil and Morris.

“People vote for different reasons, as some people vote for what they can get,” he told Kansas Liberty. “If they can get a chairmanship or a position of power, they vote that way.”

Besides, according to Lynn, at least one “conservative” emerged triumphant: Derek Schmidt.

“Contrary to popular belief, Derek Schmidt is an extremely capable, conservative Republican, and I think our current leadership team knows what we need to do,” Lynn said.

Schmidt, who generally has supported Morris and Vratil, is not normally seen as a conservative.

His fate was never in doubt, however, since he ran unopposed.

– Holly Smith

Previously on Kansas Liberty: