At the Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce's Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Forum Tuesday, the candidates emphasized connections.
State Sen. Laura Kelly spoke about her relationships in the Kansas state legislature. Carl Brewer and Jack Bergeson reiterated their proximity to and understanding of the common man, Brewer through his experiences as a former Wichita mayor and Bergeson as a young worker. Former Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Josh Svaty focused on breadth and quantity.
"There are 3 million people in Kansas. I don't know them all, but I'm related to about 50 percent of them," Svaty quipped in his closing statements at the forum at Garden City High School.
As Svaty said in an interview earlier Tuesday with The Telegram, his supposed statewide personal connections and extensive networking is an important element to his candidacy, and a factor that he believes sets him apart from his Democratic competitors.
"We want to make sure that we are demonstrating to Democrats in the eastern third of the state that keep saying, 'Oh, he spent too much time in western Kansas. There's just no Democrats there," Svaty said. "We want to say, 'No, no, no. This is what happens when you pay attention to them, and you get them fired up and you get them energized."
Svaty has pushed his farming background, small hometown of Ellsworth, and background in the Kansas Department of Agriculture as evidence of his understanding of and interest in Kansas' western, rural concerns. But he maintains that it will take more than talking points to win the largely Republican west.
He said his background, but also his connections, made him trustworthy across the aisle, and were elements frontrunner Kelly lacked.
"It's more than simply saying, 'Well, I have a plan for Garden City.' or 'I have a plan for the western third of the state,' Svaty said. "It's about having friends and cousins and aunts and uncles in these communities, that when people say, 'What about that Svaty guy?' They can say, 'Well actually, I've known him forever and his family's really great, and he does what he says he's going to do. That validation is more valuable than the in-person campaigning that I do."
Regardless, Svaty said he has "campaigned hard" in western Kansas and believes rising property tax rates and underfunded public schools may push Republicans to "intuitively sense" that a Democratic governor may be a good balance for the state, especially with a Republican legislature and president.
Should he win the primary, it's a tactic he expected would give him an edge over the Republican opposition, likely Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach or Gov. Jeff Colyer.
"In terms of the candidate (Republicans) fear the most, it's me," Svaty said.
The former secretary touched on issues regarding trade tariffs, the preservation of the Ogallala Aquifer, expanded broadband and emboldened infrastructure in western Kansas to propel the region's economic development, and an embrace of diversity through policy that supported and showed the value of the state's immigrants.
As he concluded at the forum, Svaty highlighted his ability to discover and recruit talent, such as his running mate Katrina Lewison, and the stakes of the upcoming general election.
"For Democrats in particular, this has been a hard eight years. And this is not a joke. It's important for us to win this next election, and we know what is waiting for us on the other side of the Republican primary..." Svaty said at the end of the forum. "We have got to fix Kansas. We have to do it with people who are bright, that bring different perspectives, different viewpoints and a brighter, fresher optimism back to the state of Kansas."