12 Days until one of the most impacting elections of our lifetime. Johnson County is represented by 22 state legislators in the House of Representatives in Topeka, 16 of whom are Republicans. Just 6 years ago, Johnson County only sent one Democrat to Topeka. Buoyed by Democratic gains in 2006 and the Obama wave in 2008, the Democrats now boast of 6 representatives from Johnson County. With an anemic 28 percent approval rating in Kansas, Obama is political anathema to most Democrats, and that rings true in Johnson County, the state's most populous, prosperous, and urban county whose flirtation with the Democrats will end this year. The Democrats stand to lose what little progress they've made in Johnson County. Here is our analysis of the Democratic seats most likely to flip this cycle, starting with those seats almost certain to move to the Republican column:
1. 19th District - Jim Denning (R) vs. Dolores Furtado (D-inc.) - this longtime Republican district that takes in a large but narrow portion of Overland Park from 87th and Metcalf to 132nd and Metcalf was represented by Tim Owens for many terms until he stepped down to run and successfully fill the senate seat vacated by Barbara Allen of Overland Park.
Incumbent Dolores Furtado, a former JoCo Commissioner, is the most liberal member of the Democratic delegation from Johnson County and won by just about 200 votes over John Skubal, the Republican and OP city councilman whom many say ran a lackluster campaign.
This year, Jim Denning, well-known CEO of Discover Vision Centers and brother to JoCo Sheriff Frank Denning, is running against Furtado on the salient themes of holding the line on taxes, cutting spending, and balancing the budget. Denning is a successful business owner who has created jobs and operates in the healthcare field, giving him keen and unparalleled insight on the recent healthcare law and reducing healthcare costs in Kansas. Jim also has the advantage of having his incredibly task-focused and detail-oriented wife, JoCo GOP secretary Marearl Denning, as his campaign manager. Jim is a top-tier candidate in a Republican year running an aggressive and top notch campaign.
Prediction: Definite GOP pickup, Denning 55-45 percent
2. 16th District - Amanda Grosserode (R) vs. Gene Rardin (D-inc.)
Former educator Gene Rardin has maintained a very tenuous hold on this district since he was first elected in 2006 after a bitter GOP primary with a classic moderate-conservative battle. Despite that, Rardin has never locked down this district, which includes a sliver of southeastern Lenexa and a large portion of Overland Park, stretching along US-69 from 91st street to 119th St., anchored by downtown Overland Park in the north. Amanda Grosserode, a young wife, mother, and darling of the Tea Party movement here in Johnson County stemming from her first 2009 protest outside Dennis Moore's office, is the Republican nominee. Grosserode has created a local profile for herself and has aggressively campaigned in the district, walking the entire district door-to-door twice already. Rardin is much older and questions have been raised about his health and ability to campaign--even at the height of Obama mania in '08, Rardin won by less than 1 percent (less than 100 votes) against a GOP opponent who never walked the district. Youthful and energetic conservative Grosserode is in a prime position to reclaim this seat for the GOP.
Prediction: Likely GOP pickup, Grosserode 53-47 percent
3. 18th District - John Rubin (R) vs. Cindy Neighbor (D-inc.)
This district, which takes in a large portion of Shawnee, including the entire eastern half of the city, has developed a reputation as a swing district, a bellweather that signals the political direction of the county at large. This seat switched back and forth between Mary Pilcher Cook and Cindy Neighbor in GOP primary battles like clockwork from 2002-2004 (Cook won in 2000, Neighbor won in 2002, Mary won the seat back in 2004), until Cindy became a Democrat and squeked out a razor-thin 159 vote margin over Cook out of more than 8,000 votes cast in the Democratic tidal wave in 2006. Even in 2008, Neighbor could only muster a 5 percent margin against John Rubin, a longtime Shawnee resident and former FDIC judge. Rubin is back again and has name ID from his first run, and should be able to pull off the win this time. Western Shawnee is more conservative than eastern Shawnee, but east Shawnee still retains a large, blue-collar worker population that is culturally conservative, which gives the district a slight conservative lean overall. Education is also a powerful issue here, with the location of Shawnee Mission Northwest, Hocker Grove Middle School, and several elementary schools (Neighbor's position on the SM school board has always been an asset), but that issue is blunted this year with the focus on the economy in a district where unemployment and home foreclosures have hit especially hard. This year, the district formerly represented by Phil Kline and Mary Pilcher Cook returns to its conservative roots.
Prediction: Likely GOP pickup, Rubin 51-48 percent
4. 22nd District - Greg Smith (R) vs. Lisa Benlon (D-inc).
This far-north Overland Park district takes in a small portion of northwestern Prairie Village and is bounded by 75th Street to the north, Switzer to the west, 91st St. to the south, and Nall to the east. For many years, this was the sole Democratic seat in Johnson County, held for many terms by educator Sue Storm who vacated the seat to run for State School Board. The district has only been represented by a Republican once - in 1994 - for just 2 years, but this could be the upset of the year. Lisa Benlon made a deal with storm to run as a Dem for this seat in '08 (having formerly served as state rep in the 17th District prior to Stephanie Sharp), but Benlon was only able to garner 53 percent of the vote in 2008, a wave year, in a Democratic-leaning district. Benlon's opponent, Joy Bourdress, lost some votes to a Libertarian candidate but garnered a respectable 42 percent of the vote. It can safely be assumed that a 2 person race would have resulted in just a 5 point margin for Benlon: 53-47 percent.
This year, there is no libertarian on the ballot and current teacher, former police officer, and well-known father to slain high school student Kelsey Smith, Mr. Greg Smith, is on the ballot. Greg has extensive name ID due to the national coverage of the tragic murder of his daughter that sent shockwaves throughout the usually safe and secure suburbs in this county. Smith is respected for the work his foundation does (in memory and honor of his daughter) in educating young women in self-defense and changing the laws state-by-state to require cellular phone providers to hand over traceable data during emergency situations. Smith's current job as an American History teacher gives him credibility on education issues and he's running on a solidly fiscally-conservative and socially conservative platform. For the first time in 16 years, this district may switch parties. Whether Smith can hold it longer than 2 years (the record) remains to be seen.
Prediction: Toss-Up/Slight GOP lean. Smith 51-49 percent
5. 23rd District - Brett Hildabrand (R) vs. Milack Talia (D-inc.)
This politically challenging district for Republicans encompasses portions of eastern Shawnee (east of Quivira and Shawnee Mission Parkway) and all of Merriam in an area that borders the Wyandotte County line and has witnessed an influx of minority voters and changing demographics the last few years. Judy Morrison retired after holding the district for the GOP for several terms by razor-thin margins that only seemed to narrow with each passing election. Prior to Morrison, the district was held by Republican Cliff Franklin, but it had also been held by Democrats throughout the '80s and into the early '90s. The district was swept up in the Obama wave of '08, sending perennial Democrat Milack Talia to victory with a lopsided 56-43 percent margin over Shawnee Planning Commissioner August Bogina, who didn't care enough about his own campaign to bother with a campaign website.
Political newcomer Brett Hildabrand has been walking the district - an essential priority for a Republican in this district - even engaging voters in the numerous apartment complexes that proliferate the area. Hildabrand has also received help from Judy Morrison, whose similar grassroots activity and fine line between active conservative and advocate for local schools and businesses enabled her to hold the district much longer than any other Republican would have in a similar environment. The district has a high concentration of Democrats that slightly exceed Republicans, so the challenge is getting all Republicans out to vote and winning a vast majority of independents. The typical moderate-conservative divide that plagues other areas of the county is not a factor here, as the Republican voter base tends to be very conservative and the district overall has a slightly culturally-conservative tilt due to the large number of blue collar workers (which may explain Talia's shift to the right this last cycle and his vote against the sales tax increase in Topeka). Hildabrand has a chance to win this, but it won't be easy. Yet the candidate's dedication and personal likeability, combined with the local and naitonal winds that favor the GOP, make this district in play, which is why this "likely Dem" seat of 2008 is only "lean Dem" now and definitely provide some surprises on Election Day depending on turnout.
Prediction: Lean Dem. If Hildabrand wins: 50.6 - 49.4 percent. Talia won't top 52 percent if he retains the seat.
6. 24th District - Michael Foltz (R) vs. Michael Slattery (D-inc.)
Ronnie Metsker (current GOP chair) was appointed by precinct people to finish out Ed O'Malley's term, but was carried out by the Obama tide, garnering only 40 percent of the vote in 2008. This liberal-leaning district includes the inner-ring KC suburbs of Mission and Roeland Park, and was the only JoCo house district to vote for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race. Mike Slattery, the son of former Congressman Jim Slattery, is affable, well-liked, and does not wade into controversy. It could also be said that his voting record is somewhat centrist, although undoubtedly left-of-center still on major issues.
Roeland Park Planning Commissioner Michael Foltz is mounting a challenge, and with community roots and a disarming persona, he could make some headway, but that same mild-mannered and low-key approach seems to have infected his campaign: he has failed to raise any money and has not established a campaign presence. He does have the endorsment of the left-leaning Mainstream Coalition, which helps in this liberal-leaning district, but Slattery should hold on, albeit with a reduced margin.
Prediction: Likely Dem, Slattery 54-46 percent
To recap, Republicans will most likely gain 3 seats, with the possibility of a 4th that is currently a tossup and a 5th that has an outside change of changing hands. Johnson County Democrats will be left with just 3 seats and maybe left after the Republican comeback in just 12 days.