TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A push by top Republicans in Kansas to punish party officials who backed an independent candidate for governor is shining a spotlight on an internal rift that could hinder GOP leaders’ efforts to steer the state to the right over Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s objections.
Many Republicans blame independent state Sen. Dennis Pyle’s campaign for Kelly’s narrow reelection victory Nov. 8 over three-term Republican state Attorney General Derek Schmidt. But five hard-right lawmakers said in a Facebook statement this week that GOP “establishment manipulations” were the culprit and denounced the state party’s chair.
While Republicans nationally are unsettled by ex-President Donald Trump’s bid to win back the White House in 2024, the Kansas conflict boiled over because state GOP Chair Mike Kuckelman convened the party’s Loyalty Committee the day after the election. The committee enforces a party ban on its officials supporting non-Republicans.
“Kuckelman and the Republican establishment, we are done with you,” the lawmakers concluded in a posting on the Facebook page of state Sen. Mark Steffen, a south-central Kansas Republican.
Kuckelman, a Kansas City area attorney, plans to retire as chair in February, when his two-year term ends. Three of the statement’s signers said they plan to remain Republicans, while two others did not respond to emails seeking comment.
“I fix problems. I do not run from them,” Steffen said in an email Thursday. “As such, it is Republican Christian values that I adhere to and advance. Values that build great societies.”
Kelly won reelection with a little less than 50% of the vote and faces GOP legislative supermajorities that can override her vetoes — if Republicans remain unified.
The party’s Loyalty Committee this week stripped about 40 officials of party decision-making posts such as voting-precinct committee spots. However, Kuckelman said Thursday that the sanctions have been suspended to give those officials a chance to have appeals heard by the state party’s larger executive committee.
The hard right remained skeptical of Schmidt despite his conservative record as attorney general. He was an aide to moderate Republican U.S. senators early and served as Kansas Senate majority leader with a moderate Senate president before being elected attorney general in 2010.
Pyle also was among the Legislature’s most conservative Republicans before leaving the GOP to run for governor. Kuckelman and other GOP leaders contend Pyle took votes from Schmidt and decreased Republican turnout by making conservatives less enthusiastic about him.
“That election was a perfect example of how divided houses fall,” said Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita Republican.
The GOP dissenters argue that the state party establishment ignored conservatives’ misgivings and improperly treated Schmidt as the Republican nominee well ahead of the August primary. Pyle has called Schmidt a weak candidate.
“I plan to remain a principled Republican that honors the will of the People and respects the Republican Party platform,” said another dissenter, central Kansas state Sen. Alicia Straub.
Kuckelman saw the lawmakers statement as an attempt to tamp down the widespread Republican anger over support for Pyle.
“What they’re doing is trying to dig themselves out of a hole that they’ve placed themselves in,” Kuckelman said.
Pyle, Steffen and Straub already had been stripped of most Senate committee assignments by Masterson in February in a fight over redistricting. Senate rules forced Pyle to surrender his last remaining assignment when he registered as an unaffiliated voter in June.
Masterson told reporters this week that he hasn’t decided whether to punish Steffen and Straub further. Kuckelman acknowledged that the Loyalty Committee can’t touch elected lawmakers like them who don’t hold party positions.
And while three Kansas House members signed the statement, Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who’s expected to become House speaker in January, said he doesn’t plan to punish the two who were reelected. Hawkins said removing people from committees would mean others would have to “take up the slack.”
One of the House members, southwestern Kansas Rep. Tatum Lee, who lost a primary race when she was drawn into a district with another GOP incumbent, said in an email: “The statement I signed on to earlier in the week is to put on notice the traitors in our midst that our values nor our vote are for sale and that any cheap imitation or perversion of our platform is a slap in the face to Liberty.”
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John Hanna, The Associated Press