In a matter of days, GOP voters will choose their nominee for governor, and it’s an intriguing four-person race. No, not the Colyer, Kobach, Barnett, Selzer contest, although those names are on the ballot, along with a couple of well-spoken 17-year olds. With all due respect, Insurance Commissioner Ken Seltzer and former state senator Jim Barnett have little chance of emerging as the nominee.
So, who are the four individuals affecting this race? Most obvious are Gov. Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the two apparent leaders. But equally important are names not on the ballot: former governor Sam Brownback and President Donald Trump.
Colyer, as a seven-year Lieutenant Governor, is joined at the hip with Brownback, who left office with a low-twenties job approval rating. As for the effusive Kobach, whose relationship to the truth rivals that of the president, he gleefully associates himself with the style and substance of Donald Trump.
For all of Kobach’s national attention on vote suppression and anti-immigrant pandering, his campaign has scarcely caught fire. Rather, at every turn, he has double-downed, moving farther and father to the right. As he recently noted, “We are going to be bringing … these changes to Topeka and we’re going to be doing it in an aggressive way. No holds barred, no-retreat kind of way.”
In other words, just like Trump.
Kobach is relying on his assessment – based on polling or his gut or both – that Kansas GOP primary voters will follow him down the road of far-right, white male populism.
He might be right, as he campaigns in his flag-decorated jeep and his Trump-plastered bus, unapologetically calling for the denial of in-state tuition rates for undocumented students, even as he grossly overestimates the cost to the state. Following Trump’s lead, truth takes a beating, as in Kobach’s incessant campaign against voting by undocumented immigrants or his portrayal of Kansas as a bastion of so-called “sanctuary cities.” He shrugs his shoulders, blames the media, and moves on.
If Trump shimmers behind Kobach, for Governor Jeff Colyer, the ghost in his closet remains Sam Brownback, who physically left the capitol six months ago, having figuratively departed the governorship soon after the 2014 election. Aside from opposing the expansion of Medicaid and reforming (sic) KanCare, Colyer spent the last seven years in a political witness protection program, invisible to the electorate. Remarkably, despite some sightings over the past few months, most notably in signing $525 million in new school funding, the governor has done little to enhance his profile. Sure, he has traveled the state and cut some ribbons, but has left the lightest of footprints. Indeed, Colyer’s visibility barely budged, at around fifty percent, between February and June, according to polling data. Nothing drove this home more forcefully than Colyer’s first television ad, which, in late June, introduced him to the state’s voters.
Where does this leave us, a momentous primary looming? The highly visible Krump, with visits from such luminaries as Ted Nugent and Donald Trump Jr., plays to the far-right Republican base with his typical abandon, while Colback promises to cut taxes and act slightly less conservative than his opponent. Still, he did suggest that boy scouts remove KU’s disputed American flag image not just from its flag pole, but from the University’s museum. “See,” he seems to say, “I can be just as crazy as Kris.” Very reassuring.
One thing is clear, whether choosing the dangerous clown or the inconspicuous conservative, GOP voters will select a far-right nominee at a time when the political winds are blowing, even in red-state Kansas, in the opposite direction.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor at the University of Kansas.