Conservative Republicans scored big wins across Kansas on Tuesday as they set themselves up to seize control of the state Senate and clear a path for Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's agenda.
Moderates lost in many key Senate races in Tuesday's GOP primary, including five of six seats that were up for grabs in Johnson County.
Rep. Kay Wolf of Prairie Village was the only moderate Republican to win in Johnson County.
Conservative Jeff Melcher knocked off Rep. Pat Colloton in Senate District 11; Rep. Jim Denning downed moderate Tim Owens in Senate District 8; and Rep. Greg Smith beat Joe Beveridge in Senate District 21. Conservative Mary Pilcher Cook fended off a challenge from moderate Tom Wertz in Senate District 10.
In outstate Kansas, conservative challengers knocked off Senate President Steve Morris and fellow moderates Roger Reitz, Jean Schodorf and Dwayne Umbarger. Sen. Pete Brungardt was trailing by more than 10 points early today.
The races were particularly bitter and expensive as the battle between conservative and moderate Republicans reached a 25-year crescendo. At stake was control of the Kansas Senate, where moderate Republicans have teamed with Democrats to slow Brownback's agenda.
Brownback took the rare but not unprecedented step of campaigning for conservative Senate and House candidates. His former chief of staff even chipped in with cash to help conservatives in their races against moderate Republicans.
Conservatives needed to pick up just three or four seats to turn the direction of the Senate. By late Tuesday night conservatives were winning in 16 of 21 key Senate races across Kansas where they were running against moderates.
If the trend continued, conservatives might be able to turn at least nine moderate seats in their favor.
"It's a big win for Team Brownback," said Fort Hays State University political scientist Chapman Rackaway. "They are in remarkably good shape."
While Tuesday's results give an indication of where the Senate is headed, the final score won't be known for certain until after the general election this fall.
Some of Tuesday's winners, including Denning, Smith and Melcher, will face Democrats in the general election.
Three conservative Republicans are mounting challenges this fall against well-financed Democratic incumbents, including Sens. Tom Holland and Kelly Kultala, who ran on a ticket against Brownback in 2010.
In some lower-profile Kansas House races in Johnson County, conservatives were heading toward wins as well:
District 8: Former congressional candidate Craig McPherson beat moderate incumbent Rep. Sheryl Spaulding, 61 percent to 39 percent.
District 30: Rep. Lance Kinzer won the battle of two Republican incumbents who were put in the same district after federal judges drew new election boundaries. Kinzer beat Rep. Ron Worley 57 percent to 43 percent. Kinzer will face Democrat Liz Dickinson in the fall.
Moderate Republicans did pick up a couple of wins with Stephanie Clayton beating Bruce Belanger in District 19 and Melissa Rooker winning in District 25. Rooker faces Democrat Megan England in the fall while Clayton meets Zach Luea.
But it was the Senate races that received the heaviest attention, especially with Brownback's involvement and because they drew former Gov. Bill Graves back into the state to help raise money for moderates.
Conservatives celebrated their victories Tuesday night at the Doubletree Hotel in Overland Park.
Winners said the primary results were a sign that voters want less government and lower taxes. The conservative wins ensure a more ideologically pure Republican presence in the Legislature, they said.
"We really are just better aligned with the electorate than ever before. We really don't need a Democratic wing of our party," said Melcher, who faces Democrat Michael Delaney in the fall.
Smith, who faces Democrat Juanita Roy in the general election, put it more succinctly.
"We won't have any more gridlock in the Legislature."
The election was marked by special interest groups pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into ad campaigns for local candidates.
The Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Americans for Prosperity and Koch Industries got behind the conservatives, many of whom campaigned on cutting taxes, reducing state spending and curbing government regulations.
Meanwhile, the moderate Republicans forged an unlikely alliance with organized labor, gambling interests and teachers groups.