Note: Updated 8:30 a.m. Aug. 7 to reflect last-minute campaign contributions.
A national organization that polices the accuracy of charges made in political campaigns has said mailed materials being used in the coordinated effort to oust some incumbent Republican state senators in Kansas are misleading.
FactCheck.org is a nonprofit project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
The group examined direct-mail pieces that accused some incumbent senators of scuttling efforts to pass a state constitutional amendment opposing the federal health reform law commonly known as the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare.
“One mailer makes the slippery statement that the legislation ‘would have amended the Kansas Constitution to allow you to vote to opt-out of Obama’s new health care law,’” FactCheck.org researchers concluded. “That’s true. Kansans could have voted – but purely on a symbolic level.”
Kansans go to the polls Tuesday to decide a host of races in Republican and Democratic primaries. The most heated and expensive races so far have been those of Republicans seeking to hold or capture Senate seats.
For the most part, the mailed information has been sent on behalf of conservative Republicans vying against GOP opponents who are considered more moderate in their views.
Supporters of the proposed amendment, which over the course of two legislative sessions failed to get enough legislative backing to make it onto the ballot, said it would have allowed Kansans to opt-out of the federal health reform law. It would not have created that option and some opponents of the measure said it might mislead Kansans into thinking, for example, that they could choose not to have health insurance and avoid the federal tax penalty the law would impose on those who can afford health coverage but decide against it.
The proposal passed the House earlier this year but failed by one vote in the Senate, with six moderate Republicans voting with Democrats to deny it the needed two-thirds majority. A similar statewide ballot measure was approved in Missouri.
Some of the targeted moderates voted for the amendment but also voted for a provision to keep it off the ballot, if the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the health reform law, which it did in June.
Americans for Prosperity-Kansas, an organization that advocates for smaller government and lower taxes, produced several of the direct-mail pieces.
As a nonprofit advocacy group, AFP-Kansas doesn’t have to disclose the names of its contributors or its campaign expenditures. However, it’s known that Wichita businessmen Charles and David Koch were founders and major contributors to AFP.
State campaign finance filings show that their company, Koch Industries, has contributed about $175,000 to other organizations involved in the effort to defeat eight to 10 moderate Kansas Republican senators. Much of it – $125,000 - went to the Kansas Chamber, which has spent more than $675,000 on this year’s campaigns. More than $300,000 of that total was spent in the last few days.
“We need to be more competitive,” said Eric Stafford, a Chamber lobbyist. “Our state has a lot of attractive elements; one of those, unfortunately, is not its tax policy.”
Many of the moderates being targeted for defeat resisted Brownback’s successful push last session to cut income taxes. Brownback and the Chamber’s leaders said the tax cuts would stimulate the Kansas economy.
Health reform as a wedge issue
A recent mailer paid for by the Chamber’s political action committee features a photo of Sen. Vicki Schmidt affixed to a rubber stamp. The piece accuses the Topeka moderate of siding with the Democrats and President Obama on a host of key economic issues and charges that she voted against “efforts to stop Obamacare.”
Stafford said it was fair to focus on the health reform issue even though leading constitutional scholars said the amendment would have had no effect had it passed.
“Kansans didn’t have the opportunity to voice their opinion,” he said. “For our state Legislature not to give Kansans the right to voice their opinion on their ability to opt-out of the most controversial health care reform to take place in our country is unfair.”
Conservative State Rep. Joe Patton, who has the Chamber’s endorsement, is challenging Schmidt in the primary. The Chamber spent more than $17,000 on mailings to help Patton in the final days of the campaign.
The mailers, Stafford said, helped educate voters about who voted against the opt-out amendment or to weaken it.
Mark Desetti is on the other side of this year’s high-stakes campaign for control of the Kansas Senate. He lobbies for the state teacher’s union, the Kansas National Education Association.
The group has spent more than $237,000 this election cycle, much of it to help Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Desetti was critical of conservatives for using the federal health reform law as a wedge issue in state legislative campaigns.
“This election has nothing to do with Obamacare, and yet that’s what they’re running their campaign on as if the state Legislature is the one that is going to make that decision,” Desetti said. “It (the health reform law) has nothing to do with the Kansas Legislature.”
The Legislature could play a lead or major role in deciding whether the state will choose to expand eligibility for the Medicaid program. The federal law would expand eligibility to all adults earning 138 percent or less of federal poverty guidelines. But the U.S. Supreme Court, in its ruling, found that state’s have the option of expanding the program or not. If Kansas chooses to widen the program, an estimated 130,000 Kansas are expected to directly benefit from the coverage. Currently, about 383,000 Kansans are enrolled in Medicaid, but virtually all adults are barred except for pregnant women, frail elderly or disabled persons who are very poor.
But the Medicaid expansion issue has not been raised in any of the races to date. Patton, who held a Monday afternoon press conference to blast his opponent’s “lies and deceit,” for questioning his commitment to conservatism, indicated he was unfamiliar with the issue and said ”I would have to take a look at that.”