Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Races to Watch: KS State House

With several open seats this cycle, the KS legislature will look very different come January 2009. Here's a look at some of the top races:

1. 24th District--Ronnie Metsker (R) vs. Jim Slattery (D)
When Metsker was selected by Republican precinct committee members to fill the vacany left by Rep. Ed O'Malley's departure, he was consider the more conservative candidate. In his almost 2 years in office, Metsker has skillfully navigated the moderate-conservative divide in the state and positioned himself as an authority on education in this district, gaining the endorsement of several education special-interest groups (also assisted in no small part by his wife, Susan, who sits on the Shawnee Mission School Board). This time around, Metsker faces Mike Slattery, son of U.S. Senate candidate Jim Slattery, who won his race against former 2006 Democratic challenger Andy Sandler by only a few votes literally. This district encompasses the KC inner-ring suburbs of Mission, Northern Overland Park, and Southern Roeland Park, and is becoming increasingly liberal (as proven by O'Malley's single digit win in 2006 and the fact that the 24th was the only house district in Johnson County to go for Kerry in the 2004 election). Slattery has greater name recognition in the 2006 Democratic challenger, Andy Sandler, but since voters are unlikely to send his dad to congress, we are going to bet they will not send his son to the legislature either. The close Democratic primary left some wounds that have been slow to heal, and we do expect the increase in turnout and the new voter registration numbers to have an impact, but we expect Metsker to pull out a 4-5 point win.

2. 16th District--Jim Yonally (R) vs. Gene Rardin (D)
Yonally held this Overland Park/eastern Lenexa seat (which follows 95th Street to Quivira south to 119th Street, and includes such staples as Johnson County Community College and Oak Park Mall) until he was beaten by Dennis Kriegshauser in the 2006 primary, in one of the county's classic moderate-conservative battles. Kriegshauser then went on to lose by only 2 votes out of more than 8,000 cast, in an election marred by potential voter fraud and registration fraud. Rardin, a first term Democrat, has not done much in the capitol to warrant another term, but he has worked the district and has more signs up and fundraising appeals. Yonally escaped the prospect of a bruising primary, and as a moderate, should be a lock for this district, but there are indications that he has not worked as hard as he should and has been slow to organize. High Democratic turnout and enthusiasm may be a factor, but that will also be blunted by high and energized Republican turnout in a presidential election year. Rumors concerning Rardin's deteriorating health may also affect voters' attitudes towards re-electing Rardin. Complete toss-up.

3. 22nd District--Lisa Benlon (D) vs. Joy Bourdess (R)
Sue Storm's decision to step down from this seat to run for State Board of Education puts this seat in play for the first time in more than 10 years. For many years, Storm served as the sole Democrat from Johnson County in this northern Overland Park-based district that takes in a sliver of Prairie Village and is bounded by 75th and Switzer on the west side, Nall on the east side, and 91st Street to the south. Lisa Benlon's decision to switch parties and run as a Democrat may be a factor, although Benlon enjoys a reputation and resume as a leading voice for public schools due to her previous work as a state representative (preceeding Stephanie Sharp in District 17) and her work in public relations for the American Cancer Society. However, Benlon is not running in her old district--she's a carpet bagger who made a deal with Storm to run as a Democrat and move to 22nd District, which will not sit well with some, and many just do not know her story and background. Joy Bourdess, homemaker and longtime GOP activist and resident of the district, is working hard and running an incredibly organized, grassroots, disciplined campaign, making this a tight race and the one race to watch for an upset--a chance for the GOP to take back a seat it hasn't held in years. This race may go down to the wire, but Joy's lack of real opposition in the primary and her early grassroots organization (contrasted to Benlon's slow start and perceived misplaced-confidence) could result in an upset, but Benlon does have the endorsement of Storm, which does matter in this left-leaning district. Just way too close to call.

4. 23rd District--August Bogina (R) vs. Milack Talia (D)
Judy Morrison retired after winning several razor-thin margins in this district, which includes eastern Shawnee (east of Quivira and Shawnee Mission Pkwy) and all of Merriam. Merriam's proximity to KC gives this district a high number of Democrats, producing very close races, including the 2006 election, in which Morrison only beat her heavily-underfunded opponent by 3 points. Shawnee Planning commissioner Bogina has name recognition in Shawnee, but the district only includes only 6 Shawnee precincts, so the challenge is for him to introduce himself to Merriam voters. Talia is known here, for his past failed election attempts and has been rejected, and has a reputation for negative attacks. This district is most likely to be impacted by increased Democratic registration, which gives Talia the boost, but Bogina's reputation and experience in the community ensures it will be close. The deal-closer: can Bogina reach out to conservative and moderate Dems in the same way Judy Morrison did to seal the deal? We give Talia an ever-so-slight edge in a race that is still too very close to call.

5. 18th District--John Rubin (R) vs. Cindy Neighbor (D)
My hometown district, and in many ways, a bellweather district that signals the political direction of the county at large. This seat (formerly held by Phil Kline) shifted back and forth between Mary Pilcher Cook and Cindy Neighbor in GOP primary battles between 2000-2004 like clockwork (Mary won in 2000, Cindy won the primary in 2002, Mary won again in 2004) until Cindy joined the Democratic party and managed a razor-thin 159 vote win over Cook out of more than 8,000 votes cast in a Democratic-tidal wave year. This time, Mary's running for Nick Jordan's senate seat, and newcomer John Rubin brings gravitas with his experience as an FDIC judge, federal administrative law judge, and a jurist in the Navy JAG corps--experience that is especially relevant considering the state of the economy. Cindy, meanwhile, has displayed somewhat erratic behavior while in office and on the campaign trail. She tried to block the implemention of Alexa's law, which charged those who killed a pregnant woman with a double crime--for taking the life of the mother and her unborn baby. Cindy tried unsuccessfully to kill the bill in committee than reluctantly supported it in a full house vote. Her cheesy mailers that read more like a high school senior's resume than an accomplished legislator, combined with her propensity for rudeness towards constituents and comments that come across as out of touch (in reference to seniors being unable to pay their property taxes under her proposals, she opines that they should have planned better), makes this seat a top GOP target. Many Democrats in the district have been disappointed in her, and if we are to see a large crossover vote for any candidate, it will occur here, among more moderate Dems. No libertarian is running this year, so Rubin has the slight edge. Voters here seem to be schizophrenic in who they choose, making this a classic swing district, but with a new face on the ballot in a year no worse for Republicans than 2006, an energized GOP base voting in a presidential election, and a lack of opposition from the right, Rubin has the slight edge and should pull out an upset in the low to mid single digits.

Stay tuned as we profile the last two races to watch: 19th District: John Skubal (R) vs. Dolores Furtado (D) and 39th District: Owen Donohoe (R) vs. Joe Novak (D)


ScottSolo said...

This race almost seems to be stealthy to those outside Shawnee. Even many I talk to inside of Shawnee are almost unaware that this is going on.

Let's hope that Sarah Palin is able to pull the base out because that is what John R. needs to get this seat back in the hands of a highly qualified conservative.


Brandon said...

I agree with your analysis and that is why I think Rubin has a good chance to produce an upset. I recently walked my precinct and was amazed to find out how receptive Republicans and Independents were to his candidacy--I even spoke with a Democrat who cannot stand Cindy and said she would be voting for Rubin this year as a protest vote. Also, two "moderate" Republicans in my precinct who voted for Cindy in '06and who have never been receptive to conservatives are supporting Rubin this year--they have been disappointed as well.

We'll see how things play out in the next few weeks. And the presidential race (despite what the mainstream media would have you believe) is far from over. My next post will discuss this in some more detail.