TOPEKA — With more than 14 months left until the general election, the race for Kansas governor is becoming increasingly crowded and competitive as candidates on both sides eye the seat being vacated by an unpopular incumbent, Gov. Sam Brownback.
Already, three Republican statewide office holders have entered the race, and Democrats are preparing for their first primary in 20 years, promising a shift from Brownback-era policies. This early, some political science professors said it’s difficult to distinguish candidates from one another, but to come out on top in a crowded primary, gubernatorial hopefuls will have to set themselves apart and compete for campaign funds.
“A year and two months out, it’s as confusing as I’ve ever seen it,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor at the University of Kansas who served in the administration of former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
On the Republican side, Trump-aligned conservative Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is thought by some to be the front-runner, though the race also includes governor-in-waiting and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, a fellow conservative. Kansas Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer is also running on a promise of efficient government.
Other Republicans, such as former state Sen. Jim Barnett and former Rep. Ed O’Malley, who is considering a run, appear to be positioning themselves as moderate Republicans. Wichita businessman Wink Hartman has dubbed himself a political outsider.
Patrick Miller, an associate professor at the University of Kansas, called Kobach the obvious favorite in the Republican primary, but Loomis said it was too early to tell.
“I think the fact that there’s so many people interested simply means that there’s no overwhelming favorite,” Loomis said.
Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty said Kobach’s name recognition advantage came with the baggage of having low approval ratings. Kobach had the most name recognition but least favorable rating in a survey released this spring by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University.
On the Democratic side, former state Secretary of Agriculture Joshua Svaty, former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer, House Minority Leader Jim Ward and Olathe physician Arden Andersen are running in what could be the first Democratic primary since 1998. Wichita high school student Jack Berger also declared his candidacy despite not being able to vote for himself.
Kansas Elections Director Bryan Caskey said there previously have been large numbers of candidates when an incumbent, like Brownback, is term-limited.
Ward said he thought the Democratic field was larger than usual because voters want continued work to roll back Brownback-era policies.
“I think you see a lot of energy out there to continue the progress, to move forward,” Ward said.
Beatty said it’s difficult to predict whom voters will support in a primary because they cannot default to a candidate based on party affiliation, removing certainty regarding what party-line voters will decide. With a competitive primary, though, he said there will be lots of debates, forums and campaigning for voters to watch and study.
“I would argue voters need to not be cynical, but instead embrace this,” Beatty said.
To some, Kobach seems to be the favorite in the Republican party because of his name recognition. Barnett said he thought the crowded primary would favor Kobach. He said he thought his own pathway to victory in the primary would rely on distinguishing himself from candidates he called “Brownback light.” Barnett appears to be positioning himself as a moderate and favors expanding Kansas’ Medicaid program, though he favored tax cuts when he ran for governor in 2006.
Several candidates said the crowded primary would inject healthy competition into the race. Selzer said he thought it would be “healthy for democracy” for the parties to have competitive races, but that his campaign was focused on getting out his call for government efficiency.
Kobach favored the crowded race, but he said it might make it harder for candidates to get their messages out to voters because of the competition.
O’Malley said that would “bring out the best in everyone.”
“The more crowded the race, the more candidates will have to refine their ideas and their vision,” O’Malley said.
Democrat Svaty said he thought the primary was indicative of an “interest in change” he sees among voters in Kansas. He said he is about halfway through a listening tour in all 105 Kansas counties.
Brewer said a crowded primary would hand the choice over to voters, rather than having a hand-picked person from the party.
“I think it’s excellent because I think to voters — as I said, it gives them that opportunity to be much more informed,” Brewer said.
Ward, however, drew a distinction between the Democratic and Republican primaries. He said the quality of Democratic candidates’ campaigns would determine whether a crowded field is helpful or harmful.
“If we run on the basis of what we can do for Kansas and the benefits of our candidacy, that kind of adult, professional campaign contrasted with the food fight that’s going to be the Republican primary will really elevate our campaign and our message,” Ward said.
With messaging being the most challenging part of running in a crowded primary, Kobach said he thought it was important candidates have a clear message. He criticized candidates who had not clearly defined their platforms. Kobach has said he will run on immigration, lowering taxes and fighting Topeka’s “culture of corruption.”
“The last thing we need right now is someone who’s malleable and whose views are unknown,” Kobach said.
Colyer appears to be distancing himself from Brownback in his early campaign messaging, promising a “new day in Kansas,” though he became the longest-serving lieutenant governor in state history while working alongside Brownback. Depending on the timing of Brownback’s departure to join President Donald Trump’s administration, Colyer might have the opportunity to serve as governor before the election and run as an incumbent.
“Dr. Colyer intends to listen, to lead and to bring people together,” his spokeswoman, Kara Fullmer, said in a statement. “And he will have an opportunity to do that as governor, before a single vote is cast.”
Hartman has dubbed himself “an outsider” and the other “establishment candidates” as insiders in Topeka. He said he thought a field crowded with “Topeka insider(s)” strengthened his case.
Democrats have centered their campaigns on shifting from Brownback politics. Brewer said he has been listening to voters and looking for problems to solve.
Svaty and Ward both have talked about stabilizing Kansas and moving the state forward after several years of budget shortfalls.
“I think people see the state kind of at a tipping point,” Ward said. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’re not done.”