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Kansas Democrats hope to end the GOP supermajority, with abortion and LGBTQ issues at stake

A stack of campaign cards for Democrat Andrew Mall.
Zane Irwin
/
Kansas News Service
Democrat Andrew Mall is one of the candidates hoping to beat an incumbent Republican and help break a GOP supermajority in the Kansas Statehouse.

Republicans hold huge majorities and can override the Democratic governor on topics like abortion restrictions and transgender issues. Democrats have set their sights on changing that this election season, but it won't be easy.

SHAWNEE, Kansas — Democratic state Senate candidate Andrew Mall breaks the Saturday morning silence in this Kansas suburb with a firm knock at a stranger’s door. A minute passes. Mall has turned to leave when a silver-haired woman materializes.

She entertains his stump speech at first. But the woman’s eyes drop when he mentions the word “Democrat.” She used to be a Democrat, but believes the party has abandoned moderate values like hers.

Mall is ready for those kinds of responses. He sells himself as a moderate alternative to the conservative Republican who holds the seat.

Andrew Mall during a day campaigning for the Kansas Senate.
Zane Irwin
/
Kansas News Service
Democrat Andrew Mall during a day campaigning for the Kansas Senate.

“I might be that Democrat you’re looking for,” Mall replies.

A purple splotch in the corner of a deep-red state, Johnson County contains more than half of the competitive races for the Kansas House and Senate in 2024, including Mall’s Senate District 10. Some other races that will help decide the makeup of the Legislature are scattered around Wichita, Topeka and Manhattan.

In Johnson County, registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats, and the conservative sheriff promotes unproven election fraud claims. Yet Johnson County also voted for Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly twice and overwhelmingly voted to preserve the right to an abortion in a 2022 state referendum.

In 2024, voters here could reshape the balance of power in the entire Kansas Legislature.

The Kansas GOP holds more than two-thirds of seats in both the state House and Senate. This supermajority, as it’s known, means Republicans alone can pass a bill and then override the Democratic governor’s veto. They’ve done this repeatedly in recent years.

Democrats have set their sights on breaking that supermajority this election, with a wave of fundraising and candidates hoping to pick up seats and make it much more difficult to override the governor’s veto on major issues.

Gender-affirming care, food stamp restrictions and abortion access have all hinged in recent years on the Legislature’s ability — or lack thereof — to bypass the governor’s veto.

Last session, for example, the Legislature passed a bill that requires abortion providers to report details about why a patient is seeking care. The bill, which a group of physicians have challenged in court, bypassed the governor’s veto by the slimmest possible margin of 84 votes in the House and 27 in the Senate.

An image of the Old Shawnee Days celebration.
Zane Irwin
/
Kansas News Service
The Old Shawnee Days event was a chance for local candidates to campaign for Johnson County seats.

Moderates forced to choose

On the same morning that Mall launches his ground game, his Republican opponent, Sen. Mike Thompson, rides in a float at the annual Old Shawnee Days parade.

Mall‘s supporters cheer his name on the sidelines when Thompson drives past. His people yell back: “Vote life!”

Thompson is the incumbent in the race after winning by less than 4% in the last election. A former TV weatherman, he has made headlines by casting doubt on climate change and election integrity. He said in an interview that Democrats focus on topics like reproductive rights to avoid less favorable issues.

Republican Mike Thompson represents one of the Senate districts that Democrats are targeting.
Kansas Legislature
Republican Mike Thompson represents one of the Senate districts that Democrats are targeting.

“What they're trying to do is pivot toward a subject that's very divisive and a hot button issue that they think they have. But they really don't because the economy is the issue right now,” he said.

But for some, reproductive rights are more than a political talking point.

At the Old Shawnee Days carnival following the parade, locals Shane and Cindy Gentry stroll through corridors of low white tents where vendors sell craft necklaces and graphic tees.

Shane said concern for his daughter’s health and safety are part of the reason he’ll be supporting Mall in this year’s election.

“As a parent I worry, because if she had some kind of medical condition (and) she couldn't do an abortion to save her life … that’s kind of important,” he said.

Shane is still a registered Republican, even though he plans to vote for the Democrat this time. Frustrated by the widening chasm between the parties, Shane and Cindy say they care more about a candidate’s policy positions than their party affiliation.

So does Asher Kier, an 18-year-old Shawnee resident. But unlike the Gentrys, Kier said his Christian faith gives him complicated feelings about abortion access.

“We've talked about (abortion) in the church and it's like, I'm definitely against this. The Bible speaks against this,” he said. “I would want to vote for somebody that believes strongly about it the same way as I do.”

Uncertain odds and high stakes

Democrats would need to pick up two Republican-held seats in the House or three in the Senate to dismantle that supermajority. Sam Paisley, the national press secretary at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, believes that goal is within reach.

“Kansans deserve to live in an environment where they are not waiting with bated breath to see if the Legislature is about to legislate their rights away,” she said.

The DLCC works with state caucuses across the country and has spotlighted Kansas as a “power building” state for Democrats. Joining the support is Gov. Kelly, who formed a political action committee dedicated to fundraising for candidates who could possibly unseat staunch Republicans. As of the end of 2023, the PAC had raised nearly a million dollars.

While Republican Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins said Democrats come for the supermajority every cycle, the money and fanfare around this year’s efforts stand out.

“I think you'll see millions spent in Johnson County trying to win that area, both on the Democrat and the Republican side,” he said.

Hawkins predicts Republicans ultimately will pick up two more seats. But he doesn’t deny Republicans in the Statehouse have a lot to lose if this election swings against them.

“That just means that we’ve got to work harder,” he said.

Zane Irwin reports on politics, campaigns and elections for the Kansas News Service. You can email him at zaneirwin@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link toksnewsservice.org.

Political discussions might make you want to leave the room. But whether you’re tuned in or not, powerful people are making decisions that shape your everyday life, from access to health care to the price of a cup of coffee. As political reporter for the Kansas News Service and KCUR, I’ll illuminate how elections, policies and other political developments affect normal people in the Sunflower State. You can reach me at zaneirwin@kcur.org