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John Hanna, Associated Press
Kansas Senate President Steve Morris, center, a Hugoton Republican, confers with Sen. Terrie Huntington, left, a Fairway Republican, and Joshua Lewis, right, his chief of staff, following the Senate's session, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Morris is one of eight moderate GOP senators facing a conservative primary challenger backed by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.

TOPEKA, Kan. — The Kansas Chamber of Commerce's political action committee is targeting eight incumbent state senators in Republican primaries this year, and one of the group's officials said Tuesday that the PAC raised more than $163,000 last year to help finance its efforts.

The Chamber PAC's targets include Senate President Steve Morris, of Hugoton. Republican conservatives have been upset with Morris and other senators over a host of issues, including taxes. Jeff Glendening, the chamber's vice president for political affairs, said the group hopes to replace the incumbents with "free market" challengers.

The chamber's efforts are significant because the Senate represents the last major stronghold in state government for moderate Republicans. Gov. Sam Brownback has said he'll stay out of primaries. His fellow conservatives believe ousting several incumbent senators will clear the last significant obstacles to anti-tax, small-government policies.

The chamber is among the most visible groups in Kansas politics, having spent nearly $960,000 during the past five years through its PAC or in lobbying the Legislature. Its members include major corporations such as AT&T, Cox Communications Inc., Spirit Aerosystems and Westar Energy, the state's largest electric utility. The PAC's largest donor last year was Koch Industries Inc., of Wichita, which gave it more than $36,000, according to campaign finance records.

The Chamber PAC filed a report Tuesday with the secretary of state's office detailing its activities for 2011. The report showed that the PAC raised more than $163,000 and spent about $112,000 last year, including maximum $1,000 contributions for challengers to eight incumbent GOP senators.

Glendening said the chamber is concerned about a lack of growth in the number of private sector jobs in Kansas and believes policies backed by Senate leaders are a major factor. All eight incumbents being targeted voted in 2010 to increase the state's sales tax to help balance the budget.

"The strategy of Senate leadership clearly hasn't worked, and it's time for private sector growth in Kansas," Glendening said in an interview.

Morris said he and other GOP senators have tried to take a balanced approach to dealing with the state's past budget problems. He said the targeted senators have supported pro-business policies, such as phasing out the state's corporate franchise tax, essentially a fee for the privilege of doing business in Kansas.

"You hear a lot of discussion about the rancor within the Republican Party, and to me, the most prominent reason for that rancor is these divisive primaries," Morris said.

Glendening said the other incumbent GOP senators whose challengers received maximum contributions from the Chamber PAC are Pete Brungardt, of Salina; Terrie Huntington, of Fairway; Carolyn McGinn, of Sedgwick; Tim Owens, of Overland Park; Vicki Schmidt, of Topeka; Jean Schodorf, of Wichita, and John Vratil of Leawood.

Vratil is Senate vice president, and McGinn, chairwoman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. The other five also hold Senate chairmanships.

"The tide's going to turn against the tax-and-spend coalition that's been killing jobs," said state Rep. Joe Patton, a Topeka Republican who's challenging Schmidt in the primary. "There's going to be a real shift."

Glendening said the Chamber PAC also plans to conduct its own, independent campaigns highlighting issues and candidates' records for voters. Also planning independent expenditures is the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the anti-tax, small-government group founded with the support of billionaire Kansas brothers Charles and David Koch, of Koch Industries.

Schmidt said the chamber's backing of Patton won't alter her campaign, and she didn't back away from her vote for the sales tax increase in 2010.

"I voted to fund services that are needed for the elderly, for the disabled, for people who can't take care of themselves, to educate our children, for public safety," she said.

Rep. Larry Powell, of Garden City, the conservative who is challenging Morris in the GOP primary, said he's glad to have the chamber's backing. Powell views it as a sign that he's far more likely to support policies that promote economic freedom and that his record is more pro-business than the Senate president's.

Powell voted against the sales tax increase in 2010. Last year, he supported a bill to reduce corporate income taxes and phase out individual income taxes as state revenues grow, a measure that stalled in the Senate, largely because of the misgivings of Morris and other GOP leaders.

"I think we have entirely different philosophies as to the way government should run," Powell said.

Morris said he and the Senate's GOP leaders have been more cautious on tax issues because they want to be thoughtful in considering changes that could affect hundreds of thousands of taxpayers.

As for the Chamber PAC's challenges to moderates, Morris said: "I anticipated them doing that."

Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

Kansas Chamber of Commerce: http://www.kansaschamber.org/