Republicans vow to evict Pyle as lawmaker

Nov. 23—A state legislator who represents most of Northeast Kansas is the reason why the GOP lost the 2022 race for governor, party leaders say, and they aim to push him out of his position.

State Sen. Dennis Pyle of Hiawatha has served as a Republican since his first election to a four-year term in 2004, but he officially left the party in June to run for Kansas governor as an independent. Republican leaders tried to get him to stop, fearful Pyle would siphon votes from the GOP and open the door to reelecting Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat. Kelly ultimately won the race with 49% of the vote. Pyle won about 2%.

"That doesn't get you elected," said state Rep. John Eplee, R-Atchison, who is now seeking Pyle's Kansas Senate seat. "You have to show some common-sense conservatism sometimes. Sen. Pyle didn't, and that didn't work out too well for Sen. Pyle."

Then and now, Pyle has argued that the GOP nominee for governor, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, is not conservative enough; voters deserved a better choice between Schmidt and the incumbent Kelly. Either way, Pyle said, he was no spoiler.

"You can look at the numbers all day long but they aren't going to change," Pyle said. "Schmidt couldn't have won this race. I don't know if there was any way. If he moved to the center, or the moderate side or the left, he was going to lose more conservative voters. If he moved to the right, he was losing moderates in the party. Incumbent governors usually win re-election and then the pendulum swings. We've seen that many times before."

Republicans say they feel Pyle has been disloyal and does not deserve to remain a state legislator. Pyle is next up for reelection on Nov. 5, 2024, to what would be a sixth consecutive four-year term in the upper house of the Kansas Legislature.

"We told Pyle at the start of this that he had no path to victory in the gubernatorial race," said Mike Kuckelman, Kansas Republican Party chairman. "No conceivable path to victory ... And he got what, roughly 2% of the vote? He accomplished absolutely nothing, other than putting Gov. Kelly back into office."

On Nov. 8, Kelly defeated Schmidt by amassing 492,209 votes. Schmidt received 20,886 votes fewer, 47% of the total. Pyle received 20,057 votes. A Libertarian candidate, Seth Cordell, received 10,888 votes, about 1% of the total.

Thus far, only Eplee has entered the race for Pyle's seat in Senate District 1. Eplee has represented the House of Representatives District 63, covering Doniphan and Atchison counties, since 2017. Eplee said he thinks there's a chance that Pyle will attempt to return to the GOP and run against him in the Aug. 6, 2024, primary election. If not, Eplee said, he figures he can defeat an independent Pyle in the general election set for Nov. 5, 2024.

"It became real easy and crystal clear when Sen. Pyle decided to become an independent and run for governor," Eplee said. "I thought, 'Well, it's definitely time to have a change of senator, and after five (terms), I thought he's really maxed out his time there. It's time for some new energy, and I think I bring that."

According to Kuckelman, who is also from Atchison, more candidates may enter the race, and as a result, the party can take no position on who should be its Senate District 1 nominee. But there is no question: Pyle has burned his bridge back to the GOP.

"We do want someone challenging Pyle so that we can get that seat back in safe, loyal Republican hands," Kuckelman said.

Marcus Clem can be reached at marcus.clem@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowClem