- Associated Press - Monday, July 30, 2012

TOPEKA, Kan. — Frustrated by their inability to achieve some policy goals, conservatives in Republican states are turning against moderate members of their own party, trying to drive them out of state legislatures to clear the way for reshaping government across a wide swath of mid-America controlled by the GOP.

Political groups are helping finance the efforts by supporting primary election challenges targeting several dozen moderate Republicans in the Midwest and South, especially prominent lawmakers who run key state committees.

Two years after Republicans swept into power in many state capitols, the challengers say it’s time to adopt more conservative policies.

“If you don’t believe in that playbook, then why are you on the team?” said Greg Smith, who is trying to oust a moderate incumbent from the Kansas state Senate.


The push is most intense in Kansas, where conservatives are attempting to replace a dozen moderate Republican senators who bucked new Gov. Sam Brownback’s move to slash state income taxes.

The Club for Growth, a major conservative interest group, is spending about $500,000 in Missouri this year. That’s double the amount it invested two years ago. The anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity opened new chapters in Iowa, Minnesota and New Mexico. The conservative business group Texans for Lawsuit Reform spent $3.5 million on legislative candidates in the first half of 2012, more than double its total during the same period two years ago.

The primary strife reflects differences that were somewhat concealed in the party’s triumphant victories in 2010, when, aided by public discontent about the economy, the GOP won its broadest control of state government since the Great Depression. After the vote, Republicans held governorships in 29 states and control of most of the legislatures from Michigan to Texas.

Conservatives, some aligned with the tea party movement, hoped to begin realizing their vision of smaller government and of a reformed education system that would give parents more alternatives to traditional public schools. But some of their initiatives were scaled back by GOP colleagues to soften the impact on public schools and other public services.

Oklahoma Republican Gov. Mary Fallin’s plan to begin phasing out the state income tax was blocked, and Mr. Brownback and Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman had to settle for a fraction of the tax cuts they wanted.

Conservative leaders say they are determined to seize a historic opportunity. Primary elections and runoffs are continuing in key states through August. The results so far have been mixed, with the overall effect this year likely to be incremental.

“It’s no secret that there’s kind of a battle for what the Republican Party will be into the future and, as a consequence, what this state will look like into the future,” said Mark Desetti, a lobbyist for the largest teachers’ union in Kansas.

The conservative push is being felt in states that are already solidly conservative, like Texas and Idaho, along with others, like Missouri, which have a tradition of political moderation and divided power.

“Republican legislatures continue to move more and more to the right of center,” said Alan Cobb, who’s overseeing state-level operations for Americans for Prosperity. “You do have this tension everywhere.”

The conflict in Kansas is heading toward a showdown in the Aug. 7 primary. Conservatives want to oust Senate President Steve Morris, Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler and the leaders of most of the important committees in the state Senate, which acted as a check on Mr. Brownback’s move to make Kansas a laboratory of conservative fiscal and social policy.

“It is all about taking over the state in a conservative vein and eliminating as much as possible anybody who didn’t agree with their philosophical ideas,” said moderate GOP incumbent state Sen. Tim Owens, one of the targets.