Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an underdog despite being the incumbent in a suburban Kansas City district that has shifted left, announced Friday he won't seek re-election to the Legislature.
The Overland Park Republican hoped to bolster his re-election campaign by forging a deal with Gov. Laura Kelly before this year's session to expand Medicaid health care coverage in Kansas, but his efforts were blocked by conservative senators who questioned his loyalties.
In his announcement Friday, Denning called on legislators to find more opportunities to work together across partisan divides.
"As a legislator, you are elected to represent your district," Denning said. "Unfortunately, I have seen too much hyper partisan gamesmanship, and we should not allow such partisanship to continue in this pattern. There is a dire need for legislators to focus not on singular goals but rather on the big picture of each policy we are presented."
The departure caps a 10-year career in the Statehouse, where his two terms in the Senate were preceded by a term in the House, and makes Democratic Rep. Cindy Holscher the clear favorite to win his seat.
Denning began as an ally of former Gov. Sam Brownback, who propelled the state into financial chaos with his tax experiment. In 2017, Denning cast a decisive blow to the tax plan by voting to overturn a Brownback veto of the plan’s repeal.
Denning also led efforts in 2019 to write legislation that satisfied the Kansas Supreme Court and ended a lengthy dispute over adequate and equitable funding for public schools.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Denning faced long odds for re-election even if Medicaid expansion had passed.
"It still would have been tough," Miller said. "No matter how he framed his record, it was never going to be easy for him just given the letter next to his name."
The Johnson County district voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016 and Laura Kelly in 2018. After the 2018 election, three Republican legislators switched party affiliation.
"This has really turned into fertile territory for Democrats," Miller said. "Suburbia has been hell for Republicans."
Holscher has served two terms in the House and made Medicaid expansion, which Denning in past years refused to support, the top focus of her campaign.
"I'm sure he might have viewed things differently had it gotten passed," Holscher said. "I've always been ready to support Medicaid expansion no matter who's on board, as long as it's a good plan. It's something that's so important to this area, and to not be able to deliver on it once finally getting behind it probably did make a bit of a difference."