COLBY — The Democratic candidate for governor who has the closest claim to being from western Kansas was a favorite among those attending a forum in Colby on Saturday, but audience members were glad to have a chance to learn more about the other six candidates in the field.
Ellsworth County native Josh Svaty is arguably the party frontrunner, judging by contributions. Campaign finance records show he has raised $192,545 as of last week, leading Laura Kelly by approximately $37,000. An analysis by the Wichita Eagle shows much of his contributions come from western Kansas, even moreso than Hays native Dr. Jeff Colyer, who leads the Republican candidates in fundraising.
Svaty mentioned the fundraising statistics more than once throughout the forum.
Svaty was a favorite of several in the audience, but his Ellsworth County roots and tenure in the Kansas House from 2003 to 2009 and as state secretary of agriculture from 2009 to 2011 likely helped his familiarity. Audience members said they were not as familiar with the other candidates, but were impressed with all of them.
“Svaty and Sen. Kelly I thought did a great job, they all did,” said Connie Davis, Colby.
“I like Svaty’s enthusiasm. Sometimes that is what carries somebody over to the governership,” she said.
“I’m thinking Svaty has our best chance to win,” said Carol Barnes, a retired teacher at Colby Community College. “I think he’s got the background, the knowledge and the charisma. Some of the others, I like what they had to say, but I don’t see them coming across on television. And in this age, that is unfortunately important.”
John Sanders of Colby agreed Svaty has presence, but he also has concern about strategy and the Legislature.
“I guess my question is who is going to serve us the best where, whether as governor or in the Senate or the House,” he said.
“I was impressed with Ward, but you’re right, he’d be good to keep where he is,” Barnes said.
Ward, who has been in the House since 2003, is House Minority Leader. Kelly is ranking minority member on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
The Democratic candidates include two political newcomers, Robert Klinginberg, a Salina truck driver and salesman, and Jack Bergeson, a Wichita high school student.
“I was fascinated by the ones who have no political experience, how much caring they have and the desire to be involved and represent those that have not been involved,” Barnes said. “I don’t know that they can win, the ones that don’t have any experience, but they certainly add a lot to our party.”
Many agreed it’s important to have candidates, especially Democratic candidates, in western Kansas.
Campaigning in western Kansas will be key for the Democratic nominee, Svaty said.
“We had a great gubernatorial candidate in 2014,” Svaty said of Paul Davis. “He raised a lot of money, and he ran a good campaign. And he won seven counties. We have 105 counties in this state. If the Democratic party is going to compete statewide, it has to campaign statewide.”
Ward said western Kansas voters have the same general concerns as those in urban areas, but candidates need to understand rural voters are different.
“If you don’t recognize Wichita is different than Colby, then you’re probably in the wrong business. You have to show first of all you understand that and have some local understanding,” he said.
“The second piece is you have a record that shows this is not something I’ve developed because I’m running for governor, this is what I’ve been working on for years and this is the next step to getting this job done,” he said.
“Kansas, in general, and I think particularly rural Kansans, can smell authenticity. They know who’s spending the time and who’s not,” Svaty said.
Jerry Hill, chairman of the Thomas County Democratic Party, agreed. He noted that in 2014, Paul Davis lost to Gov. Sam Brownback by only 32,000 votes.
“Western Kansas has just been conceded to be a largely Republican area, and it’s a total waste of time to even come out and do this. But I tell you what, if they basically put in the time and the effort to get 32,000 more votes in western Kansas, I think they could have done that and we could have won that danged election at that point,” he said.
Hill said now is a good time for Democrats to made advancements in state politics, especially in western Kansas.
“Western Kansas voters being mostly Republican are taking a look at the national scene and seeing what Brownback has done for the state of Kansas and thinking there's gotta be a better idea and they're thinking its Colyer.
“We're here to tell them no, we've got right ideas. We've got ideas that matter, the ideas that can fix this situation, and it certainly isn't more Brownback, which is exactly what Colyer is,” he said.