- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 9, 2016

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said Wednesday that a sluggish economy, not discontent with his fiscal policies, led to the ouster of 11 GOP legislators on an otherwise huge night for Donald Trump and Republicans across the country.

Democrats gained 12 seats in the Kansas House, unseating 11 incumbents, and picked up an open Senate seat. Voters retained four Kansas Supreme Court justices targeted by abortion opponents, GOP conservatives and others, preventing Brownback from having a chance to remake the seven-member court.

Several voters said they backed Democratic legislative candidates or supported the justices to check Brownback. Kerry Gooch, the state Democratic Party’s executive director, said in a statement, “We’re restoring some balance to Kansas politics.”

Even losing seats, Republicans still have majorities of 31-9 in the Senate and 85-40 in the House. In an interview with The Associated Press, Brownback called the results “very positive.”

“These are good, high marks,” Brownback said.

Kansas has struggled to balance its budget since Republican legislators slashed personal income taxes in 2012 and 2013 in an effort to stimulate the economy. Some voters have concluded that the tax-cutting experiment hasn’t generated the promised economic growth.

“The state of Kansas has been set back decades in a very short period of time,” said Ava Knatt, 48, a state information technology professional and registered Democrat. She voted against Republican Rep. Lane Hemsley in Topeka, and he lost his seat.

Brownback has blamed the state’s budget problems on slumps in agriculture and energy production that also have hit other states.

“We were in retraction last year as an economy,” Brownback said. “We’ve had that for two years and really tough budget times.”

Six conservative GOP senators and eight House members also lost their seats in the August primary. The Legislature will be less conservative, and Democrats hope to form coalitions with GOP moderates on key issues. Democratic Party leaders saw gaining a dozen House seats in the House as a major victory.

Some voters’ frustrations with Brownback benefited the Kansas Supreme Court justices targeted for removal as they faced a statewide, yes-or-no vote to determine whether they stayed for another six years.

The ouster campaign started with critics of rulings that overturned death sentences in capital murder cases. Kansans for Justice, formed by victims’ family members, called the retention of the justices “a win for criminals and a loss for victims.”

They sought to remove Chief Justice Lawton Nuss and Justices Marla Luckert, Carol Beier and Dan Biles. Nuss and Luckert were appointed by moderate Republican Gov. Bill Graves and Beier and Biles, appointed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Abortion opponents were a part of the effort, hoping to remove the four before it rules on a pending abortion case, and some GOP conservatives are worried about a coming education funding ruling. Even a gun-rights group joined the campaign.

“If we can have more conservative judges in the state of Kansas, that is what I would pick,” Kelly Truby, a 48-year-old Wichita teacher and registered Republican, said after voting to oust the four justices.

Brownback’s only appointee on the court, Justice Caleb Stegall, also was on the ballot and was retained. GOP conservatives urged voters to keep him, and his “yes” percentage was significantly higher.

The court’s defenders portrayed the ouster campaign as an effort to give Brownback control over the high court, and the argument resonated with some voters.

“I don’t think the governor should have the power to put judges in to follow the way he wants things to be ruled upon,” Lisa Raich, a 62-year-old escrow officer from Lenexa, said after voting to retain all the justices.

Asked about the retention votes, Brownback noted that no justice has been removed since the system began in 1960.

Nuss issued a statement saying the court would “continue to make rulings without fear or favor, under the law.”

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Also contributing were Associated Press writers Roxana Hegeman in Wichita and Bill Draper in Fairway.

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

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