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Democrat-backed candidates swept Johnson County’s local elections Tuesday night, indicating the party is maintaining a strong grip on Kansas’ most affluent, populous county ahead of key legislative races next year.
Progressives won all of their races on the Johnson County Community College Board of Trustees, the water board, the county’s largest school districts and in key city council contests. In some of the most closely watched races, like Blue Valley school board and Shawnee City Council, wins by progressives and moderate candidates hampered conservative gains made two years ago.
“I think 2021 was really a high watermark for conservatives in Johnson County. That caused a lot of reflection on our side to figure out why that might be, in a county that elected Gov. Kelly, (Johnson County) Chairman Mike Kelly, Sharice Davids, President Biden,” said Cole Robinson, executive director of the Johnson County Democratic Party and a Prairie Village councilman. “So we took a leading role at recruiting thoughtful, dedicated, compassionate individuals who will be phenomenal leaders for their communities.”
Once a GOP-stronghold, Johnson County now has a reliable Democratic majority. The blue shift was solidified when the county voted for President Joe Biden in 2020, after narrowly backing former president Donald Trump in 2016. Last year, the county provided crucial votes in reelecting Gov. Laura Kelly. And Johnson County Chairman Mike Kelly, a Democrat, defeated conservative Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara.
Across the board on Tuesday, the blue wave hit local elections hard, in nonpartisan races that many argue have become increasingly political. A notable exception was in Prairie Village, where at least four GOP-backed newcomers won seats on the council, in the city sharply divided over its local affordable housing debate.
“It was disappointing to me,” Johnson County GOP Chairwoman Maria Holiday said of the returns overall, adding she was still analyzing the data to consider future strategies for the party.
“I’m really proud of all of our candidates. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and sacrifice to decide that you want to step up for your community. The average person not only won’t do that, the average person in Johnson County didn’t bother to go vote. Look at the percentage of people who turned out to vote, 25%, it’s abysmal.
“I’m shaking my head a little bit asking, are we just too comfortable here?”
As of Wednesday, 26% of voters had cast ballots, with votes still being counted through Friday. That surpasses the total in 2021, when nearly 25.3% of voters cast ballots, as well as turnout in 2019 and 2017.
Progressives win school boards
Candidates backed by Democrats easily secured four seats on both the Shawnee Mission and Olathe school boards. In Olathe, two conservatives running on anger over COVID-19 policies won in 2021, and a third lost by only 65 votes.
“I don’t think it really matters whether it’s partisan or not. I think people looked at the issues,” said Anne Pritchett, with the Johnson County Democratic Women. “I like to think people vote for candidates they like rather than against candidates they don’t like, but I do think there was a little bit of that. When extremists are talking about book banning and some of those issues, I think that’s something that crosses party lines.”
In Blue Valley, the incumbent slate, including two moderate Republicans and two Democrats, had a strong win over newcomers who were backed by the Johnson County GOP and the 1776 Project PAC, a New York-based political action committee aimed at abolishing critical race theory, a college-level framework for evaluating the impacts of racism on institutions. Blue Valley also elected two conservatives in 2021.
“I think it’s pretty loud and clear that voters in the school district appreciate what the district has been doing and want to see it continue with those outstanding achievements,” said Blue Valley incumbent Jan Kessinger, a former Republican Kansas state representative, who won his race Tuesday. “I think they didn’t buy into the ‘sky is falling, the schools are failing,’ messaging. They weren’t swallowing the lies put out by the 1776 Project. They know better and voted that way.”
In Gardner Edgerton, where the school board has a conservative majority, two incumbent board members held on to their seats. But two races, where progressives are in the lead, were too close to call.
City councils shift
Some argue that GOP leadership has moved to the right, alienating moderate Republicans who traditionally held the majority on Johnson County’s local boards.
Kessinger and some other moderates have pointed out they were not included on the Johnson County GOP’s candidate list. For example, Mickey Sandifer, a moderate Republican and former councilman, won the Shawnee mayor’s race on Tuesday, defeating longtime Councilman Mike Kemmling, a conservative who was backed by the GOP.
“I hesitate to label it that the Republican party is out of touch or that the Democrats are gaining, as much as it is that the leadership of the Republican party are out of touch and going to the fringe,” Kessinger said.
“Our numbers show a lot of Republicans voted for the non-Republican ticket. Look at the Value Them Both amendment (the Kansas abortion referendum) last August and how many Republicans voted against that amendment,” he said. “So you can’t paint the Republican party with a real broad brush. But the leadership has become intolerant and ideologically strict. And they’re just not representing the people.”
Kessinger said he’s “still rebelling against” the local elections becoming increasingly partisan.
“Nobody was a D or an R on the ballot. People who happen to be Democrat were favored in the races. People who happen to be Republicans lost. But that’s probably reflective of their stances and issues. Not every Republican, not every Democrat, fits nicely into a mold.”
Along with Sandifer’s win in Shawnee, three council candidates backed by Democrats took the lead on Tuesday. That comes after the traditionally-Republican council shifted to a 7-1 conservative majority two years ago. Two incumbents lost their seats, and one race remained too close to call. If the results stay the same, the council will shift to a 5-3 conservative majority.
“I have been proud of what this conservative Council has accomplished in terms of reducing taxes and preserving single family neighborhoods,” Councilman Kurt Knappen, a conservative who ran unopposed, said in an email. “I look forward to welcoming our new Council Members, and to ushering in a slightly more moderate Council. I look forward to working with them to stabilize things and move the City of Shawnee forward in a positive direction.”
In Overland Park, Democrat-backed council candidates won all five of their contested races. Three incumbents lost their seats, while Councilwoman Holly Grummert won another term. In Olathe, two council candidates supported by Democrats, Dean Vakas and Matthew Schoonover, won their races, and candidate Robyn Essex, backed by the GOP, won.
In Lenexa, voters elected Councilwoman Julie Sayers, a Democrat, as the city’s first new mayor in 20 years, over Councilman Joe Karlin, a Republican. Three council candidates backed by Democrats won, along with one candidate supported by the GOP.
GOP-backed newcomers win in Prairie Village
GOP-backed candidates saw the greatest success in Prairie Village, where the local affordable housing issue drove voters to the polls.
Four political newcomers, supported by the GOP, won their races bolstered by residents unhappy with how the 12-member council has gone about considering changing zoning laws to allow for a wider variety of housing.
One incumbent, Councilwoman Inga Selders, who supports the city’s housing discussion, won reelection. Councilman Ian Graves was in the lead in his race as well, but his race remained too close to call.
“In Prairie Village, I’m so proud of those candidates. They had a very specific issue that resonated within their community,” Holiday, the GOP chairwoman, said. “They are a wonderful bedroom community in our metro area. But a strategy that worked in Prairie Village would be much harder to make work in Overland Park because there’s so much more diversity in Overland Park.”
Holiday said that Prairie Village candidates were able to “really build relationships” in the smaller city races, “versus a Johnson County Community College candidate that has the entire county, or even a school board candidate, just talking about sheer numbers. So they could hone in and really get to their constituents personally in that type of community, and they did. They worked their tails off.”
The council has been debating how to attract more affordable housing in the city as home prices and property taxes continue to climb. One idea has been adjusting zoning laws to make it easier for developers to build duplexes, triplexes, apartments and other options that could be more affordable than Prairie Village’s large single-family homes.
But that immediately sparked concerns about multi-family developments crowding the already dense city, as well as whether more homeowners would be allowed to build accessory dwelling units — or “granny flats” — in their backyards. And while the council has slowed down plans, saying they are making pivots along the way to address concerns, many residents have argued that officials have not been transparent or included enough citizen input.
The debate transformed into a political battle, where a group of residents, PV united — who support the four winning newcomers — tried to get initiatives on the ballot that would have let residents vote on restricting rezoning and changing the city’s form of government.
“I think a very large group of people felt like they were not being listened to,” Robinson said. “And I think that paired with a very effective campaign apparatus that was well-funded and disproportionately Republican, led to the results we see. To win in Prairie Village like that, they had to turn it into a single-issue election or very narrowly focused election. That’s what they were able to do very successfully.”
Includes reporting by The Star’s Katie Bernard.