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Kansas Redistricting: Federal Court Redraws All Legislative Districts, Pushes 'Re-set Button'

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Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach

Kansas politics is in chaos Friday after a federal court redrew state legislative district lines, "pushing a re-set button" on the state's political structure.

A decision released Friday morning by a three-judge panel dramatically altered the state's political culture, tossing a third of the members of the state House of Representatives into competitive incumbent-on-incumbent primaries. The decision created 25 new districts just days before the filing deadline, took away at least two competitive state Senate primaries and left multiple incumbents in largely unfamiliar territory. In releasing the decision, the panel chastised legislators for failing to reach a new legislative map on their own.

"The Court recognizes that because it has tried to restore compact contiguous districts where possible, it is pushing a re-set button; its maps look different from those now in place," the panel wrote. "Some changes may not be popular and some people – perhaps many – will disagree that the Court has struck the appropriate balance. To those in that category – our fellow Kansans – we reiterate that the Court did not tread unreservedly into this political thicket. On short notice, with elections pending on the immediate horizon, we have acted solely to remedy a legislative default."

Legislators failed to draw the new state maps -- along with new congressional and state Board of Education districts -- during this year's legislative session. The failure came amid a bitter war among moderate Republicans who control the Senate, and conservative Republicans who control the House as well as the governor's mansion failing to agree on new districts. The impasse came after the House wouldn't approve the Senate lines unless the new districts helped conservative challengers. The House also tried to draw the Senate lines on its own for the first time in history.

Legislators largely agreed on a new state House map, but failed to adopt the plan because of the lack of agreement on other maps.

The maps mandated by the panel Friday shocked the Kansas political establishment. One longtime Topeka insider told HuffPost that the conventional wisdom that has governed state politics "has gone out the window." Among the shockers is the placement of 46 incumbent House members in districts with each other. While most districts wind up with two incumbents together, some place up to three incumbents in the same district.

Numbers on most districts have been changed and 25 of the districts do not have incumbents living in them. In some cases Democrats and Republicans are scrambling to find candidates to run in the new seats. The state's filing deadline is Monday at noon and Kay Curtis, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) told HuffPost that Kobach does not have the power to change that deadline. Curtis said that Kobach, who helped bring the suit, will not be filing an appeal.

Senate President Steve Morris (R-Hugoton), the leader of the state's moderate Republican movement, told HuffPost that he is not sure what the new maps mean for the future of the Senate. At least two planned challenges have ended since conservative challengers were drawn out of their districts, HuffPost has learned. Morris said he is still analyzing the maps and waiting to see what the filing deadline brings.

"I'm glad that we have a map," Morris said. "I am surprised by the amount of changes the court made."

Twitter has been abuzz with the ramifications of the maps, with some tweeting that legislators and party leaders are frantically consulting to figure out what to do.

There is also speculation among Kansas political insiders that several legislators may move over the weekend into new districts, including those who were drawn into largely new territory. In the case of Rep. Janice Pauls (R-Hutchison), more than 95-percent of her new district was not in her old district. It is unknown if Pauls will relocate over the weekend.

UPDATE: 5:57 p.m. -- While expressing optimism for his party's hopes in the wake of the new map, the leader of Kansas' House Democrats said that he expects the political upheaval to continue through to Monday's filing deadline.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis (D-Lawrence) told HuffPost that the new maps gave his party the chance to pick up more seats in the House in the November election. He said going forward that he expects a large freshman class going forward due to retirements, the open districts and the likely defeat of legislators in primaries based on the new maps.

"It gives us a fighting chance to pick up seats," he said.

He said the court's decision in the House caught him and others by surprise, and he has contacted fellow lawmakers and Democratic candidates.

"The House map is a mess," Davis said. "House members and potential candidates expected the map drawn by the House would be the map."

The court's decision not to extend the filing deadline leaves Democrats with "real challenges" in terms of candidate recruitment in new districts, he said, but another logistical challenge awaits all legislative candidates. Under Kansas law, legislative candidates can only file paperwork with the secretary of state in Topeka by Monday at noon, with no option of filing at a county clerk's office closer to home. He said candidates can have a third-party file on their behalf, but would need the paperwork notarized by their county clerk, offices that are not open on weekends. He said he expects many politicians to hit the road Sunday night or early Monday morning.

Kansas politicos also are dealing with today's retirement announcement by Senate Vice President John Vratil (R-Leawood), a leading Senate moderate. Vratil said he is retiring because he lost interest in being a senator, though he was certain he could win. Rep. Pat Colloton (R) who was placed in a new district with a fellow Republican lawmaker announced her candidacy for Vratil's seat.

Vratil's ex-wife, Kathryn, was one of the federal judges who drew the new lines.

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