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Kansas House gets new GOP majority leader, top Democrat

December 3, 2018
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Kansas state Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, right, gets a hug from Rep. Brenda Landwehr, also R-Wichita, left, after being chosen by Republicans as House majority leader, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Hawkins is a conservative and has unseated moderate Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Republicans in the Kansas House elected a new, more conservative majority leader Monday and Democrats dumped their firebrand leader in the chamber in favor of lower-key veteran with a reputation for being able to work with the GOP.

The selection of conservative Rep. Dan Hawkins of Wichita as majority leader for the next two years is likely to complicate Democratic Gov.-elect Laura Kelly’s efforts to pass her legislative agenda, particularly a plan to expand the state’s Medicaid health coverage for the needy.

Defeated Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Dighton Republican, has supported expanding Medicaid while Hawkins, the House health committee chairman for the past four years, strongly opposes it. Hawkins said he’s not heard “clamoring” from fellow lawmakers for the idea.

“I’ve heard a lot in the press. I’ve heard a lot from other places, but in the people I’ve been talking to, I’ve not heard a lot of people say, ‘Let’s go spend all of our money on Medicaid expansion,’” Hawkins told reporters after he was chosen by GOP House members and members-elect.

Republicans maintained their 85-40 majority in the House in this year’s elections, but conservatives picked up at least six seats at the expense of GOP moderates. Hawkins prevailed over Hineman, 48-35, with one lawmaker absent and another not voting.

“Our caucus shifted to the right,” Hineman said after being ousted.

Hawkins is an insurance agency owner who was first elected to the House in 2012. Hineman, a farmer and rancher, first won his House seat in 2008.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr., a conservative Olathe Republican, won a second, two-year term as the chamber’s top leader, besting a challenge from conservative Rep.-elect Owen Donohoe, of Shawnee, on an 80-4 vote.

But the result in the majority leader’s race suggested that Democrats still have opportunities to form coalitions with GOP moderates to pass legislation.

To help shepherd Kelly’s agenda through the Legislature, they turned to Rep. Tom Sawyer over Rep. Jim Ward, who’d held the job for the past two years with conservative Republicans Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer as governor.

While Brownback and Colyer could pass legislation with GOP votes alone, Kelly will have to build bipartisan coalitions.

“I think that’s going to be more important than ever, that we’re able to build relationships and compromise and get things done,” Sawyer said.

Both Sawyer and Ward are veteran lawmakers from Wichita, but Ward has a reputation for being the harder-charging partisan and more likely to deliver fiery speeches and public statements. The vote among House Democrats was 24-16 in Sawyer’s favor.

Ward also launched a run for governor in August 2017, dropping it nine months later because he couldn’t raise enough money in the face of Kelly’s candidacy. Sawyer said some Democrats felt Ward’s run for governor distracted from winning legislative seats and in a good year for the party nationally, Democrats should have gained at least a few.

Ward declined to speak to reporters after the vote.

Sawyer was first elected to the House in 1986 and served as majority leader in 1992, when Democrats last controlled the chamber. He was minority leader from 1993 through 1998, stepping down for an unsuccessful run for governor against then-popular GOP incumbent Bill Graves.

He returned to the House in 2003 and left in 2009 for a seat on the state parole board. After Brownback reorganized the board — costing Sawyer his position — Sawyer won back his House seat again in 2012.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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