By Aaron Strain / Opinion Editor
Reno County residents may have noticed an avalanche of political attack advertisements in their mailboxes. The ads, which feature clip art of money zapped out of a man’s pockets and stock photos of dejected patients with head in hands at their doctor’s office, are all products of a contentious primary election sparked in part by Political Action Committee, or PAC, funding.
The Primary Election for Kansas Senate District 34 demonstrates a deep ideological divide within Kansas’ Republican Party between moderate conservatives and Brownback-Trumpian sycophants.
This narrative, and the institutions funding it, dominate the race between seat incumbent Ed Berger and challenger Mark Steffen.
State Senate District 34 covers all of Reno County and the northern half of Kingman County, including the city of Kingman.
Sen. Berger has held the seat since 2016. The Primary Election takes place on August 4, and early mail-in voting is currently underway.
Holding a Doctorate in Education, Berger was the President of Hutchinson Community College for 23 years.
Berger originally ran for office in 2016 to correct the Brownback tax experiment, which “had essentially bankrupted the state,” he said during a recent candidate forum. He is staunchly pro-life and fiscally conservative.
His campaign focuses primarily on his decision-making ability, experience as a legislator and college president, and promotion of conservative values.
Steffen is an anesthesiologist and self-described “private sector guy” who owns several oil and gas investment companies.
In his opening statement for the forum, Steffen said Kansas was founded on “Christian values and the Christian rule of law,” both of which are “at risk right now from this radical, chaotic, violent liberalism that is bent on destruction of our cities and history.”
To protect us from this straw manned enemy, he said he will “stand firm with the military, police and God.”
According to the Hutchinson News, Steffen registered to vote in Hutchinson, within the 34th District, seven months before officially preparing his run. Previously, he was registered in the 32nd District, claiming his residence in southern Kingman County. His family owns homes in both districts, which are part of ongoing legal disputes. The last time he voted in Reno County was in 2004.
Steffen’s campaign has been 50% attacking Berger for not being conservative enough and 50% promoting, basically, a Christian theocracy.
The winner of this primary will face Shanna Henry, the only candidate in the Democratic Primary for the seat, in the General Election in November.
Anti-Berger ad storm and the Koch connection
A few anti-Berger mail advertisements were paid for by pro-business group and Steffen endorser Kansas Chamber PAC. These ads have been misleading at best and borderline libel at their unsubstantiated worst.
One ad argued that Berger “is just a typical politician who is not willing to defend our conservative, rural Kansas values.” The ad supported this by claiming he “hiked middle-class taxes”
This claim cited Berger’s 2017 “yea” vote to override former Gov. Brownback’s veto on ending the administration’s disastrous tax experiment as a “tax hike.”
While Berger’s vote technically raised taxes, it simply restored Kansas’ tax system to the way it was before the state drowned itself in debt and unconstitutionally underfunded schools. Overriding the veto was one direct cause of the budget surplus Kansas experienced the past two years. The coronavirus pandemic likely eroded some of those gains, however.
During the forum, Steffen claimed the “big mistake” of the tax experiment was not cutting taxes, but rather that “they didn’t cut the budget.”
However, “there were indeed cuts,” Berger responded. “I think our correctional officers…, highway patrolmen, the maintenance on our roads…, our mental hospitals that lost accreditation…, K-12 and higher education would say there were cuts.
“These were some things we suffered with considerably, and we’re finally righting the ship,” he said.
The Kansas branch of the national super PAC Americans for Prosperity, or AFP funded several other mail ads.
These ads were form-letter-esque in their creation and displayed the same type of arguments. All AFP has to do for other campaigns is to replace Berger’s name and portrait with that of someone else the PAC doesn’t like and send it to the printer – it’s cheap and effective.
In this series, additional arguments are added to copied bullet points from the Chamber ads.
The main focus of one ad is on Berger’s support for Medicaid expansion, juxtaposed with stock photos of disgruntled senior patients with heads in their hands.
They describe Berger’s vote as spending money on a “broken system” which adds “100,000 new able-bodied adults, regardless of whether they choose to work.”
Medicaid expansion is a “budget-busting proposal [that] would likely trigger even higher taxes,” the ad claimed.
Not described, however, were contradicting facts: medicaid was created to cover those who cannot afford healthcare regardless of ability, the federal government would cover 90% of the expansion, and the state will give up around $950 million in preallocated funds to other states by 2022 if expansion is not passed.
Only one of few pro-Berger ads, paid for by his campaign, mention’s a challenger’s existence.
The ad, a letter signed by Berger’s wife, decries the viciousness of the unnamed opposition and upholds Berger’s commitment to his constituents and community values.
No discussion of Kansas politics is complete without mentioning the state’s finest export: the multimillionaire oil tycoon Koch brothers. They have 105 fingers sticking in the pies of every Kansas county.
The Kochs founded both Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce PAC, and Koch Industries continues to support them.
AFP-Kansas has not explicitly endorsed Steffen, though its ads arguably do so indirectly. The Chamber PAC endorsed him, however.
The conservative populist “Great Backlash”
Thousands of words could be written debating deceptive advertisements, but they would distract from the broader context of decades-long infighting in the Kansas Republican Party.
In his book What’s the Matter With Kansas?, historian and journalist Thomas Frank wrote about “the Great Backlash,” wherein conservatives took power over Kansas through a culture war against “liberal elitism,” both against Democrats and inside their own party. This backlash effectively erased historic progressivism in the state and made economic conservatism unquestionable dogma.
Trump’s election kept this “Con versus Mods” GOP divide intact, albeit more removed from reality. The reigning mantras of primary campaigns now are “I will kneel at the altar of our dear leader more” instead of “I will cut your taxes more.” Tax cuts are implied by the nature of being a Republican.
The political divide at the hyper-local level in Kansas is not between Republicans and Democrats.
In a stereotypical sense, the divide exists between the affluent Highlands suburban hellscape, with a backyard golf course encircled by winding roads and cul-de-sacs, against the edge-of-town suburb, with lawns full of crabgrass, rusty cars and confederate flags. They believe in the same principles (the market and individual are above all else, abortion is literal murder, the American empire can do no wrong, etc.). Yet, they hold animous towards each other, generally along these class lines, over how often they wear a red hat.
To view this framework in action, watch a TV ad break. For thirty seconds, a U.S. House or Senate candidate broadcasts how gun-touting, immigrant hating, and Trump-loving they are while disparaging their primary opponents for supporting the liberal cause to destroy America, only to be followed by another thirty seconds from another candidate saying the same thing.
With all that in mind, it’s no wonder why a primary election has become so contentious, but why are well-funded PACs so interested in a Republican safe seat?
Sen. Larry Alley, a Republican, currently holds the 32nd District Senate seat and is up for re-election this year, without a Democratic or primary opponent. Steffen could have primaried this seat, yet he chose to run in the 34th.
Koch-affiliated think tank Kansas Policy Institute annually publishes what they call the “Kansas Freedom Index,” scoring state politicians based on how supportive they are of “the free market and the constitutional principles of individual liberty and limited government.”
In 2019, Berger scored a 41%, while Alley scored an 80%.
The PAC backing we see in the 34th District could be a strategic play to boost the quarterly profits of the institutions funding them.
If a politician is more “pro-business,” the policies they support increase large corporations’ quarterly profits. A “pro-big government” or even a moderate candidate yields less return on investment. So, in the eyes of the boards of big-money PACs, what’s to lose by primaring an incumbent moderate? They just end up with someone who supports cutting taxes, albeit not as much as they prefer.