TOPEKA, Kan. – Jim Denning once symbolized what for Medicaid expansion supporters was wrong with the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature. Now, the Kansas Senate majority leader is an expansion champion who's under fire from some GOP lawmakers he's supposed to be leading for working with the state's Democratic governor.
Denning recently faced criticism from Republicans for appearing at events with Gov. Laura Kelly to promote an expansion plan that she and Denning drafted. Some GOP lawmakers worry that he's undercutting their strategy of holding Medicaid expansion hostage to pressure fellow lawmakers into moving forward with their top priority: an anti-abortion measure. Some also see his efforts as a calculated ploy for voter support in his suburban Kansas City district.
Less than a year ago, Denning's face appeared on protest signs and leaflets, and banners hung briefly in the Statehouse rotunda proclaimed him among the GOP leaders with “blood on their hands.” His opposition to an expansion bill Kelly favored was key to preventing its passage.
Denning's shift shows how efforts to expand Medicaid under the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act can get bipartisan support even in the last red states to consider them. It also demonstrates how President Donald Trump's loss of support in suburban areas can scramble state and local political calculations in ways not related to the president's re-election bid or control of Congress.
“It is something that's a little bit unexpected,” said April Holman, executive director of the pro-expansion Alliance for a Healthy Kansas. “But it's a breath of fresh air after a long, long period of no collaboration across the aisle, or very little.”
Thirty-six states have expanded Medicaid or had voters approve ballot initiatives to do so. In Kansas, Republican governors' staunch opposition thwarted expansion despite bipartisan legislative majorities favoring it before Kelly took office early in 2019.
Last year, Denning and other GOP leaders used their clout to block an expansion bill. One of his concerns was that the private market might collapse if too many people left their insurance plans for Medicaid coverage.
Yet he and other Republican Senate leaders also promised a debate this year, and Denning went to work on a GOP alternative. Then, he and Kelly began talks. Their plan would give her the straight-forward expansion she sought and him a program aimed at holding down private health premiums to keep consumers in the private market.
“He's as invested in expanding Medicaid now as I am,” Kelly said in an interview.
Denning, the 63-year-old retired CEO of an eye care and optical surgery company, is known at the Statehouse for a command of policy details and a tendency toward wonkiness in public remarks. He believes most of the 29 Republicans in the 40-member Senate would back the expansion plan, calling it “a very Republican bill.” He also said he believes passing Medicaid expansion first would help the anti-abortion measure pick up votes.
“The citizens of Kansas want health care” for as many people as possible, he said.
“He's always maintained that we need to get it right,” said Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, a Republican from eastern Kansas who supports expansion.
Other lawmakers see a political calculation. Denning is from the state's most populous county, Johnson County. Once a solid GOP stronghold, its suburban voters are wary of Trump and helped elect Democrat Sharice Davids to Congress in 2018. Kelly carried the county by almost 17 percentage points.
“I've worked with governors, but as a majority leader, you have a different role in that you're the leader of the Republican caucus,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita conservative. “The caucus expects the majority leader to be carrying Republican values.”
Denning faces a potentially tough re-election challenge from Democratic state Rep. Cindy Holscher.
“Denning is easily the most vulnerable senator running for reelection,” said Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist. “What could help Denning get reelected is a good story about him helping get Medicaid expansion passed that makes it look like he's doing something moderate and that he's working with a Democratic governor who won the district that he is running in.”
Holscher said she's not surprised that Denning has embraced Medicaid expansion.
“We've dragged him to the table," she said.
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Jim Denning was Medicaid expansion supporters' symbol less than a year ago of what was wrong with the Republican-controlled Legislature. Protest signs and leaflets featured his face, and banners hung in the Statehouse rotunda proclaimed him among GOP leaders with “blood on their hands” for blocking expansion.
The Kansas Senate majority leader is now an expansion champion who's under fire from some of the Republican lawmakers he's supposed to lead for cutting a deal with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Even worse to them, he's appeared at pro-expansion events outside his Kansas City-area district designed to overcome a stalemate in which GOP colleagues are holding expansion hostage to win passage of an anti-abortion initiative.