When November rolls around in Kansas, a lot of eyes will be on the presidential competition or the tight U.S. Senate battle between Roger Marshall and Barbara Bollier.
But don’t forget the races for the Kansas Legislature. If just a few seats are flipped, that could make a difference in who wins elections throughout the next decade.
"Voters could see very different representation, and they could be sharing representation with very different communities," depending on what happens, said Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political science professor.
The next cohort of state legislators elected November will get to redraw the lines for federal congressional districts and state legislative districts based on 2020 Census results.
If Republicans retain or add onto their two-thirds supermajorities in both chambers, they’ll be able to override any vetoes by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly on their maps. But if Democrats win just one more seat in the Kansas House or three more in the Kansas Senate, GOP lawmakers will need to work with the other party to get maps approved by the governor.
In short, there’s a lot riding this election.
State Republicans have held a supermajority in the House for a decade and even longer in the Senate. But since 2016, Democrats have increased their numbers to get to where they are now: 41 members in the House and 11 in the other chamber.
The timing of this has attracted outside groups who have put Kansas as a key target this election cycle, pumping money and resources into relatively cheap Statehouse races for results that could impact long-term.
Both the Republican State Leadership Committee and National Democratic Redistricting Committee are investing in Kansas state races, Bloomberg first reported. EveryDistrict, a pro-Democratic political organization, also put Kansas on its target list and is ramping up 2020 operations because "this election is the last chance for a decade to gain Democratic power."
According to Princeton Election Consortium’s Moneyball project, which identifies voters’ impact on partisan gerrymandering, Kansas voters have "high leverage," and the data gives bipartisan control of maps a 77% chance. It identified seven competitive races in the state all for the Kansas House where outcomes could have the most influence.
Already, Democrats are using this issue to try to energize their base.
Rep. Jennifer Day, D-Overland Park, whose race is among the seven identified by Moneyball, tweeted out when asking for donations that "I support a fair, independent redistricting process," highlighting that she was endorsed by NDRC.
The Kansas Democratic Party is also painting this election as a crucial turning point.
"To ensure all Kansans, regardless of their political affiliation, are represented equally over the next decade, it is critical Kansas Dems end the Republican supermajority in 2020 ahead of redistricting," said party spokesperson Reeves Oyster.
Only then can Democrats uphold vetos by Gov. Kelly "on extreme legislation and gerrymandered maps," she added.
Republicans have pushed back against the idea that a supermajority would result in unfair maps.
"Democrats are running a campaign focused on baseless redistricting allegations," said House Majority Leader Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, saying the election should be about choosing people "who will work together to solve problems for them — not trying to create new divisions before the election is even over."
CJ Grover, spokesperson for the Kansas Republican Party, said a GOP supermajority would result in "maps that reflect the will of the majority in our state." If the governor’s veto can’t be overridden, maps would be catered toward Democrats’ interests.
"If Kansans want maps drawn specifically to protect Governor Kelly's friends like Sharice Davids in Congress and others in the Legislature... rest assured those will be the governor's selfish priorities," Grover said.
What could happen?
The district of U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, is a prime target for redistricting by a GOP supermajority, political experts say. The party would also try to make the 2nd Congressional District more Republican-friendly.
On the state level, the current competitive nature of a number of House races is in part a product of what happened during the last redistricting cycle in 2012.
Back then, the GOP did have a supermajority in the state Legislature. However, due to infighting between moderate and conservative Republicans and no agreed-upon maps, the courts were tasked to draw what are the congressional and legislative districts today, the first such time in the state’s history.
"Because the maps were drawn by courts last time, they are relatively clean and compact, and they're not gerrymandered," said Miller, the political science professor. "Our current map has a lot of competitive districts, and it is relatively balanced with respect to the partisan breakdowns in the state."
For state Democrats, who have little chance of gaining a majority, their best hope is to keep maps close to where it’s now, he said.
"There have been ups and downs for them under this map," Miller said. "This is not a map that is drawn to favor Democrats, but it's a map that allows Democrats to compete."
The other party, depending on how Election Day turns out, will have options. The most obvious one is to draw maps that will lock in a supermajority, experts said.
In areas like Shawnee County, the city of Topeka is split between three state Senate districts, two currently held by Democrats. One would take the most Democratic precincts of the county — most likely in Topeka — and pack them as much as possible into one district. That would make the other remaining districts more Republican, Miller said.
For such smaller cities as Newton, currently encompassed by one Kansas House district represented by Rep. Tim Hodge, D-North Newton, the move there would be to divide the city up into multiple districts to wash out the Democratic votes. A GOP supermajority would put seats like Hodge’s in danger, said Miller.
Michael Li, redistricting counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said he thinks the ultimate goal isn’t simply a party supermajority but a conservative supermajority.
"I think a bigger concern for many Republicans will be trying to target other Republicans who aren't necessarily aligned with them," he said. "It may be that in places they have to pick and choose whether they're targeting Democrats or targeting moderates."
It’s an echo of the 2012 redistricting struggle between the two factions, but now, conservatives are the bigger faction within the state GOP. Additionally, in the August primaries, many moderate Republicans lost to their more conservative opponents.
Safe Republican districts could be rehashed and redrawn so that moderate incumbents might face more competition from conservative challengers, Li said.
Drawing district maps, however, is not as simple as creating whatever district one wants to run in. For one, there are rules, such as districts having to be contiguous and compact as possible. Districts are also drawn based on population for equal representation.
In places such as those surrounding Kansas City, it could be difficult for the GOP to eke out significant advantages there.
"Kansas, the political geography is a little bit more like New York or Texas, where you’ve got some areas that are competitive, but some areas that aren't. And in those areas that aren't, it's hard to do gerrymandering," said Li.
Miller added that the Kansas GOP is facing an uphill trend in which rural areas are losing population, while urban and suburban areas, which are becoming more blue, are gaining.
"We're going to have legislative seats moving from rural communities and being put into more urban and suburban communities, which will give Democrats some more opportunities to pick up seats," said Miller. "Republicans want to be able to control that process as much as possible."
Changing redistricting: A dead end
Advocates have called for a long time for redistricting to be taken out of the hands of politicians who have a direct stake in it.
"There is a growing body of evidence that independent commissions do do better at drawing maps that are politically fair, that treat racial minorities fairly and that also keep communities together," said Li.
But in Kansas, there seems to be little potential for any change.
Other states have implemented fundamental redistricting reforms through citizen-initiated ballot measures. In Missouri, for instance, voters passed Clean Missouri, which would appoint a non-partisan demographer to draft up maps. (The state’s Republican legislature, however, has put that issue back on the ballot for this election.) In Kansas, no such citizen-initiated process exists.
The other method of changing redistricting is through the courts, but last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts have no role in determining whether district maps are unconstitutional based on partisan gerrymandering.
That leaves it up to state courts, where in some other states, they have been able to strike down aggressively gerrymandered maps. But those tend to be only in extreme cases, said Li. In addition, it is already required in Kansas that all district maps go through the Kansas Supreme Court for constitutional approval.
Legislation, in the end, would be the only path for any redistricting reforms. But the most recent attempts have gone nowhere in a one-party-dominated legislature that would see no incentives from such changes.
Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, sponsored HCR 5006 last session, which would establish a redistricting commission. That died in committee. Before that, the same proposal in HCR 5011, sponsored by mostly Democrats, died in committee as well in 2018.
"While there was some Republican support for it when I first introduced it in 2017, it was only a handful," Parker said. "A lot of those Republican members have been purged by their party at this point and been replaced by far-right legislators."
But Parker said he’ll still file legislation on the issue next session even if he isn’t optimistic about its chances.
"I’m happy to keep talking about it and keep introducing, because I think it’s the right thing and it’s what most Kansans want," he said.