Kansas Democrats are seeking to frame the race for Kansas governor as a binary choice, but Kansas Republicans are relishing a crowded field that could allow the GOP to hold onto power in Topeka with less than 40 percent of the vote.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the state’s top election official and a fixture on cable news, won a historically close election against the sitting governor and will go on to face state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat.
They won’t be alone.
Kelly will be relying on a coalition of Democrats, unaffiliated voters and moderate Republicans to win the governor’s office after eight years of Republican control. And Orman’s candidacy for governor has sparked backlash from Democrats, who fear he will draw these crucial votes from Kelly.
Orman has dismissed that criticism. There are 122,000 more independents in Kansas than Democrats, he said last week.
“What I need is to inspire them to get out to vote,” Orman said. “So often they don’t vote, and I understand that, because they go to the polls and they feel like they’re choosing between the shingles and the flu.”
Kelly said Orman has the right to run, but she also emphasized that her campaign will be relying on more voters than just Democrats to win.
“I went into college as a math major, so I can add,” she said. “I know the breakdown of Republican registration, Democrat registration. A Democrat cannot win a statewide race with Democrat-only votes. So the moderate vote will be extraordinarily important to me.”
Democrats make up 24 percent of Kansas’ registered voters and Republicans 44 percent. Unaffiliated voters, the ones Orman refers to as independents, are 31 percent of the state’s voting population.
Kobach sought to equate his two opponents during a GOP unity event Aug. 16 at Kansas Republican Party headquarters in Topeka. After taking a jab at Kelly, he launched into an attack on Orman.
“We also face a so-called independent whose views are so far to the left that the Democratic Party in 2014 pulled their own candidate off the ballot because he would be a better Democrat than the person who won the election would be. We are not going to let voters forget that,” Kobach said.
After Chad Taylor won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2014, he withdrew from a three-way race against Orman and Sen. Pat Roberts, a move that was seen as a boost to Orman’s candidacy. Orman lost to Roberts by double digits.
Democrats have no plans to clear a path this time around.
Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, downplayed Orman’s significance to the 2018 race.
“People are giving Greg Orman too much credit. He’s just one of a long list of independents. We’ve got two other independents on the ballot already,” Ward said.
Rick Kloos, a Topeka pastor mounting his own independent bid, and Libertarian Jeff Caldwell will also appear on the ballot.
“Greg Orman will just be another fly in the ointment,” Ward said. “Fundamentally, the people of Kansas are going to have to decide between Kris Kobach and Laura Kelly.”
But even a former president of the Kansas Senate admitted he was torn about whether to support Kelly or Orman.
“I really think that Greg Orman or Laura Kelly, either one, would be very good governors,” said former Senate President Steve Morris, a moderate Republican from Hugoton who opposes Kobach’s candidacy.
“I know there’s a concern it might split their votes and end up getting Kobach elected, and I hope that doesn’t happen,” Morris said.
A July poll from Remington Research Group, a Kansas City firm with ties to Gov. Jeff Colyer, showed Kelly and Kobach deadlocked in a three-way race. Kelly had 36 percent of respondents for a margin-of-error lead over Kobach at 35 percent, while Orman garnered 12 percent in the survey.
Kelly has served in the Kansas Senate since 2005 after being recruited into politics by her Topeka neighbor, former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and has played a key role in debates over state finances.
She spearheaded a bipartisan plan to fix the state’s pension system in 2012, which then-Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law and would later go on to tout on the campaign trail as one of his most significant accomplishments.
State Sen. Barbara Bollier, a moderate Republican from Mission Hills, said she plans to support Kelly in the general election.
“I was one of the people that begged her to run,” Bollier said. “I don’t care what party she’s in. She can govern the state.”
Another moderate legislator also expressed support for Kelly’s bid in the wake of Colyer’s concession in the GOP primary.
“I’ve got nothing to lose anymore — nothing. So I’m done tiptoeing around bad ideas. Kris Kobach is one awful, bad idea. Period,” state Rep. Joy Koesten, a Leawood Republican who lost her primary, said in a statement.
In a phone call, Koesten confirmed that she plans to vote for Kelly.
“I believe she’s a moderate Democrat,” Koesten said.
Kelly’s campaign will focus on fully funding K-12 education, a perennial theme for Democratic campaigns in Kansas, and expanding Medicaid, an issue she thinks could draw voters to the polls.
“I think (in) this particular election cycle that it is a huge selling point,” Kelly said about expanding Medicaid. “I think people are recognizing it’s not only providing health care access to 150,000 more Kansans, it is also supporting our rural hospitals and growing our economy. And I think people get that, that it’s much more than just a health insurance program.”
Kobach called Kelly’s support for expanding Medicaid socialist during the Aug. 16 GOP event in Topeka in a preview of the rhetoric his campaign will employ on the issue.
Mark Kahrs, the Kansas Republican national committeeman, called Kelly a “nuts and bolts policy wonk” and said she was “not a strong retail politician.”
Kahrs, a former GOP lawmaker from Wichita, said Orman would hurt Kelly’s candidacy.
“Clearly an independent on the ballot who is liberal is going to be a harm upon the Democratic nominee,” he said.
Ward said Kelly was instrumental in helping stabilize the state’s budget last year, which has allowed for more education spending.
“Those are the kinds of things that Kansas voters expect their state government to do, and Laura Kelly brings a strong resume of those types of accomplishments,” Ward said.
Kelly faced scrutiny during the Democratic primary for a 2011 vote in favor of a proof-of-citizenship voting law crafted by Kobach.
The law went into effect two years later, causing tens of thousands of voters to fall into suspended voter registration. The law was struck down in federal court this year.
“If I had known what was coming, I would never have voted for that,” she said.
Kobach’s primary campaign featured parade rides on a star-spangled Jeep with a replica machine gun and events with rocker Ted Nugent and Donald Trump Jr.
His general election campaign promises to up the ante regardless of the other names on the ballot.
“You know Kris Kobach. He’s not changing who he is or what he believes or his vision for anyone, including a campaign staff,” said state Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican who took over as Kobach’s campaign manager in May after a staff shakeup.
During the GOP unity event with Colyer, Kobach told the crowd that Kansas would resist the Democratic wave that national pundits have predicted this fall.
“Let me tell you, when that ‘blue wave’ approaches Kansas, it’s going to hit a rock-hard red wall,” Kobach said to cheers.
Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said that Kobach “no doubt wants to nationalize the election. He’ll want to bring Trump in here. ... He’ll want to talk about immigration, guns, all the wedge issues.”
Hensley noted that Kobach has advocated to repeal a law that allows students who came to the country illegally as minors to receive in-state tuition if they’ve lived in the state for at least three years and have graduated from a Kansas high school.
The starkest policy contrast between Kobach and Kelly centers on the state’s finances and education funding. Kobach has promised to cut taxes and slash spending, and he has said that he would have vetoed a court-ordered school funding bill that Colyer signed earlier this year.
“Just rolling over and essentially giving the court a massive check ... is not something I would do,” Kobach said.
Kobach’s primary campaign was largely funded by loans from his running mate, Wichita oil magnate Wink Hartman, who put $1.5 million toward Kobach’s candidacy.
Hartman said that he and Kobach would discuss the possibility of additional loans.
Kelly sought to brand Kobach as “Brownback on steroids” the night Colyer conceded. State Rep. Steve Huebert, a Valley Center Republican, laughed at the label and predicted Kobach would prevail.
“Kobach and Brownback are two very different people. I mean, I could use the same logic by saying I don’t want to go back to the Kathleen Sebelius days with Laura Kelly,” he said. “At the end of the day, both candidates need to say what they’ll do as governor.”
Orman, a wealthy Johnson County businessman, said that regardless of who won the Republican primary, it was going to be a race between two people who were “basically Topeka insiders and partisan politicians” and himself.
And he has no intention of getting out of the race, saying more competition and more choices are better for the voters of Kansas.
“I actually believe that my campaign is the only one that can gather enough support from Republicans, Democrats and independents to ultimately win in the fall and beat Kris Kobach,” said Roman, whose lieutenant governor running mate is John Doll, I-Garden City.
Former Kansas Democratic chair Joan Wagnon questioned why someone would vote for Orman, whom she described as a “rich guy with ambition.”
Orman’s assets were estimated to range between $21.5 million and $86 million in 2014. He has already poured $650,000 of his money into the race.
Orman’s campaign has sought to push back on accusations that he’ll be a spoiler by touting internal polls that show him matching up more strongly against Kobach than Kelly in a head-to-head race.
But Kansas law ensures that neither Kobach’s nor Kelly’s name is coming off the ballot now that they’ve won their primaries.
Kobach lost a court battle in 2014 to keep Taylor’s name on the ballot. In response to the court ruling, Kobach crafted a change to state law the following year to block candidates from dropping out after they win the primary unless they die, experience medical hardship or move out of the state.
Wagnon said Kelly and Orman would both be competing over unaffiliated voters this election.
“I think it’s going to come down to the wire on the general election to see who is able to marshal and pull those people together,” Wagnon said. “Anybody who can predict that race now probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Orman said his priorities are growing the Kansas economy, providing health care access by expanding Medicaid and lowering costs, and protecting public education. He also wants Kansas government to be more transparent.
“What voters are really starting to understand is the job of governor isn’t just a policy job,” Orman said. “The job of governor is a management job.”
Kloos and Caldwell
Kloos, a Topeka pastor who is running on a ticket with his 25-year-old son, was actually the first candidate to secure a place on the ballot when he dropped off more than 8,000 signatures at the secretary of state’s office in September 2017.
“I’ve been in this thing for over a year and a half,” said Kloos, whose family runs God’s Storehouse, a nonprofit food pantry and thrift store in Topeka.
Kloos described himself as a “pro-life moderate” who decided to run as an independent because of his frustration with the Republican Party. He criticized GOP lawmakers for treating “education as a liability only and not an asset.”
Caldwell, a 31-year-old salesman from Leawood, has served as an executive member of the Kansas Libertarian Party since 2010.
His platform includes the legalization of marijuana and sports betting, which he says will generate enough tax revenue to pay for the court-ordered school funding fix.
He also wants to pardon all nonviolent marijuana offenders and is an outspoken supporter of gun rights.
“There’s some people on the right and the left who agree with those stances,” Caldwell said, predicting he could draw votes away from the better-known candidates.
“I offer a true alternative to the two-party system because I am the only candidate running to fully legalize cannabis,” he said.