Sixty years ago, Fiorello, the musical based on the career of New York city’s feisty Mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, premiered on Broadway. It was a smash hit, and six decades later, “Politics and Poker” remains its most memorable tune, catchy and true.
Kansans can watch a classic poker game over the next couple weeks, a “Texas Hold’em” showdown between Gov. Laura Kelly and Sen. President Susan Wagle. The results of this high-stakes game will determine, at least for 2019, whether Kansas will expand Medicaid or continue to reject the financial benefits that come with it.
The governor and the senate president are worthy, veteran adversaries, with contrasting policy worldviews and very different political situations. Kelly, less than eleven months after announcing her candidacy for governor, won a clear victory over Kris Kobach, even though an independent siphoned off six percent of the vote.
Wagle observed that Kelly had not received more than half the vote, and thus had no mandate. Kelly smiled a knowing smile from Cedar Crest.
Wagle’s political imperative derives from her desire to become a U.S. senator, replacing the retiring Pat Roberts. With her Wichita base and conservative record, she may be viable, but no shoo-in. And here’s the rub. Medicaid expansion — in various polls, in a host of editorials from around the state, and given the results of a solid favorable vote in the Kansas House – is downright popular. Moreover, it’s likely that there are at least 21 votes, a constitutional majority, to pass expansion in the Kansas Senate. And its chances increased this past week when the governor allowed a Farm Bureau “non-insurance bill” to become law, thus potentially winning additional backing.
This is where another player comes into the game. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley has essentially said, “let’s see what you’ve got,” by filing a motion to move the Medicaid bill out of committee. That takes 24 votes. No one knows if the votes are there, but governor Kelly, Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers, and outside groups have pushed hard over the legislative recess to build support.
While Wagle seems a clear “no,” other Republican senators understand that, per Kelly’s win and Sharice Davids’ victory in the KS-3 House race, the context of the 2020 election is changing, especially in Johnson County. And other highly conservative states, such as Indiana and Arkansas, have expanded Medicaid. So perhaps some senators might hedge their bets, explaining how small-town hospitals and rural areas will benefit.
Moreover, Kelly is the state’s chief executive, with the ability to offer legislators inducements unrelated to Medicaid expansion. Overall, she holds better cards than does Sen. Wagle, whose only action is to obstruct.
As the last cards flop on the table, both leaders have a lot at stake, but not everything. Gov. Kelly can live to fight another day, given that she is just in the first few months of her tenure. More importantly, Sen. Wagle does not actually need to win on this issue. What’s central is the position she takes in the fight. She needs the support of far-right Republicans to win the nomination for governor. Win or lose, if she holds tight to her opposing position, she likely maintains this base.
Thus, there could be two winners: the governor on policy and the Senate president on politics. So, let’s see the cards.
— Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.