Kansas governor faces conservatives as legislative leaders

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly could have a tough time with the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature during the last two years of her four-year term after lawmakers’ selection of leaders Monday left no doubt that the GOP’s conservative faction is firmly in control.

The Senate is set to have a new Republican president who has said publicly that Kelly’s victory in the 2018 governor’s race wasn’t a mandate and a GOP majority leader who has helped block an expansion of the state’s Medicaid health coverage. The House’s top leaders will remain the same.

GOP senators and senators-elect unanimously picked conservative Andover Republican Ty Masterson as the Senate’s next president, replacing retiring President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and a frequent Kelly critic. Masterson last year called Kelly’s election as governor in 2018 “a tragic collision of timing” and said Monday that the results of legislative elections are the true indication of where Kansas residents stand on issues.

“The purpose of this body is to be a check on the executive branch of government,” Masterson told reporters after his selection.

The full Senate must confirm Masterson’s election as president once the full Legislature convenes its next annual session in January, but that traditionally is a formality.

The new Senate majority leader will be conservative Wichita Republican Gene Suellentrop. The new Senate leaders are set to serve four years and the House leaders, two years. Kelly faces reelection in 2022.

The governor congratulated the leaders to be and added in a statement, “I look forward to working together on the issues that matter to Kansans.”

Democrats had hoped to break the GOP’s supermajorities in both chambers in this year’s elections, but Republicans held their 29-11 margin in the Senate and had a net gain of two seats in the House to bring their majority there to 86-39. Those Republican majorities also are likely to move significantly to the right after conservatives unseated moderates in August primary races.

Both GOP majorities are greater than the two-thirds needed to override a governor’s veto or put proposed amendments to the state constitution on the ballot. Republicans also would fully control political redistricting in 2022 if they stick together.

In the Senate, Suellentrop will replace retiring Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican who worked with Kelly to fashion a compromise plan early this year for expanding Medicaid, one of Kelly’s top priorities. Suellentrop was chairman of the Senate health committee and kept their bill bottled up in committee.

He said Monday that helping small businesses struggling during the coronavirus pandemic is a more urgent priority.

“We need to target small businesses to get those people back to work, to take care of themselves and their families,” Suellentrop said.

Senate Democrats also have a new leader, Dinah Sykes, of Lenexa, who was elected to the Senate in 2016 as a moderate Republican but switched parties at the end of 2018. She will replace Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka, who lost his seat in November after becoming the longest-serving legislator in state history by serving a total of 44 years.

Sykes said she believes legislators can find bipartisan ground on many issues but acknowledged, “We lost our moderate friends, so sustaining a veto is going to be much more challenging.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., an Olathe Republican, Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, and Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, faced no opposition from fellow party members.

Ryckman will be the first person to serve three consecutive terms as House speaker, breaking an informal tradition of a two-term limit in place for at least 60 years.


Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna

Hanna covers politics and state government in Kansas for The Associated Press. He’s worked for the AP in Topeka since 1986.