Archive for Thursday, July 20, 2006

GOP wings face off in insurance race

July 20, 2006

— The political war in the Republican Party over which wing truly represents the GOP is being waged in the race for state insurance commissioner.

On one side is the commissioner, Sandy Praeger, a longtime Lawrence political figure.

Challenging her in the Aug. 1 Republican Party primary is Eric Carter, a state representative from Overland Park.

The insurance commissioner is elected to a four-year term and supervises all transactions related to insurance companies in Kansas, including mergers, business conduct and the products they sell. The insurance department has a $22 million budget and employees nearly 150 people.

The winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Bonnie Sharp, a state representative from Kansas City, Kan.

Ideology rules

Political observers say Carter's challenge has little to do with the actual job of running the state insurance department, but more about ideology.

"It's no secret that Sandy Praeger is considered to be in the moderate wing of the Republican Party," said Joe Aistrup, head of Kansas State University's political science department.

"She's clearly out of former Gov. Bill Graves' mold of moderate Republicans, and conservatives generally don't like that mold," Aistrup said.

"It's just a matter of one group of Republicans going after another group of Republicans," he said.

Carter on offense

Carter accuses Praeger of being a RINO - Republican in name only.

Carter points to two instances: In 2004, Praeger voiced support for a portion of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's health plan.

And in the same year, Praeger said she supported an increase in the state tax on cigarettes to pay for extending health care coverage to thousands of uninsured Kansans.

"Every major policy agenda item that Praeger has advanced, she has been doing it as Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' sidekick," Carter said.

Praeger disagrees with Carter's assessment.

Praeger said she supported parts of Kerry's health care plan and opposed others. The part she agreed with was a goal of helping businesses defray the health-care cost of chronically ill employees, she said. She also criticized President Bush's plan to allow employer groups to create unregulated self-insurance plans.

Ironically, Praeger said, Bush has proposed $500 million in grants to states to work on a reinsurance program, where insurers would pay a surcharge to establish a pool of insurance to cover costs associated with chronically ill workers.

On the cigarette tax increase, Praeger said she supported it as an option to pay for expanded coverage to the uninsured. But she said the cigarette tax wasn't something she lobbied for. The proposal went nowhere in the Legislature.

Carter said it's OK for Republicans and Democrats to agree, but only to an extent.

"Reaching across the aisle is not always a sin, but forgetting to come back is," he said.

Turnout crucial

"He's grasping at straws," Praeger said of Carter's assertions that she is not a true Republican.

Praeger has been endorsed by former Republican U.S. Sens. Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, who serves as Praeger's honorary campaign chair, and Graves.

"Those folks are the heart and soul of the Republican Party," she said.

Praeger said she is running on her record of reducing operating expenses in the agency, providing a balanced regulatory environment that has resulted in more insurance companies competing in Kansas and more monitoring of insurance fraud.

Average auto premiums have decreased 6 percent, homeowners' rates are stable and health insurance coverage for families is lower in Kansas than any of the surrounding states, Praeger said.

Carter insists he has more real-world experience in the field as an attorney handling insurance-related litigation. He has been endorsed by the right-wing Kansas Republican Assembly.

Both candidates, according to the latest campaign finance reports, are in the same ballpark as far as raising funds to run. Praeger started the year with $138,000 and Carter, $94,000. The next report is due July 24.

Aistrup, the political science professor, said the election would come down to which candidate gets their supporters to the polls.

"There are a lot of variables in this Republican Party primary," he said.

"There will be hotly contested State Board of Education seats that should mobilize quite a few to the polls. It's a question of how many conservatives show up and how many of them decide to pull the lever for Mr. Carter.

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