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The flip of a single state House seat in Kansas could block GOP dominance over the state’s congressional districts for the next decade.
If Republicans retain two-thirds supermajorities in the state House and Senate in the Nov. 3 general election, they’ll have veto-proof power to pass bills redrawing the state’s four congressional districts following the 2020 Census.
But if the GOP loses either supermajority through a single flip in the Kansas House—or three partisan changes in the state Senate—Gov. Laura Kelly (D) would be able to veto any redistricting legislation. Maps must be redrawn after each Census, and if Republicans can’t enact maps by negotiating with or overriding Kelly, then courts will redraw the lines, which is what happened after the 2010 Census.
The GOP already dominates elections in the state’s 1st and 4th congressional districts, and with a strong gerrymander Republicans could make two swing districts more GOP friendly—the 2nd, which U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins (R) carried by less than 1 point in 2018, and the 3rd, held by rising Democratic star Sharice Davids, the state’s first openly LGBTQ U.S. representative.
“Republicans would like to make four districts that Donald Trump won by 10 points” in 2016, University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller said in an interview. A court-drawn map is Davids’s best chance to preserve her advantage in the 3rd Congressional District, Miller said, because a court is unlikely to stray too far from current political maps.
“What’s at stake is drawing Sharice Davids out of office,” Miller said.
Kansas state House and Senate races rarely receive national attention. It’s common for a few races to turn on 100 or fewer votes.
This year the high stakes and relatively low cost of influencing small numbers of voters have turned numerous Kansas state legislative districts into battlegrounds for two national redistricting campaigns. The Republican State Leadership Committee is targeting 14 state House and Senate districts, and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee has homed in on 12 House seats.
To win one of the 125 state House races in Kansas a candidate usually must spend between $25,000 and $30,000—cheap by national standards, state Rep. Tom Sawyer, former chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party, said in an interview. This year, he said, “unprecedented” cash from national groups could double the money spent in some races.
“National Democrats are dumping unheard of sums of money in hopes of gaining the slightest bit of ground in Kansas—why wouldn’t we focus on Kansas?” Republican State Leadership Committee Communications Director Stami Williams said in an email. Her group is focusing on nine state House districts and five Senate districts currently held by Democrats but won by Trump in 2016.
A federal court drew the current maps because squabbles between disagreeing wings of the Kansas Republican Party following the 2010 Census prevented the party from agreeing on new district lines.
That probably won’t happen again because some of the disagreeing Republicans left the party to join the Democrats, so the party is more cohesive than it was a decade ago, GOP consultant David Kensinger said in an interview.
While infighting doomed Republicans’ redistricting plans last-go around, “that’s not going to happen this time,” he predicted.
Both parties are focusing on state races in Johnson County neighborhoods surrounding Kansas City. If Kansas Democrats can’t ride the national wave of suburban concern over the coronavirus response, those same suburbs could be carved up in redistricting bills that would make re-election impossible for Davids, Sawyer said.
“If you divide Johnson County up with the rural counties around it you could make that district unwinnable” for Democrats, Sawyer said. “In a state like Kansas, gerrymandering is very easy.”
Population shifts mean Democrats’ gerrymandering concerns are overblown, one Republican argued.
Growth in the 3rd Congressional District will require adjustments that have to keep in mind the need to preserve communities of interest and a GOP desire to avoid losing some advantage in the adjacent 2nd Congressional District, state Rep. J.R. Claeys (R) said in an interview.
“There’s an opportunity to make the congressional districts more friendly to Republicans, but to have them Trump-plus-10 or Republicans-plus-20 seems unlikely,” he said.
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