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SPOTLIGHT
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The Democratic candidate stands up

Published on -8/4/2013, 1:03 PM

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By BURDETT LOOMIS

Insight Kansas

Before even starting, the Democratic race for the nomination to oppose Gov. Sam Brownback has ended. Absent a huge turnaround, House Minority Leader Paul Davis from Lawrence will be the 2014 nominee.

At first glance, given Kansas's deep-red politics, Davis might seem a sacrificial lamb. But 2014 isn't 1998, when incumbent moderate Republican Bill Graves crushed then-minority leader Tom Sawyer in a 78 percent to 22 percent landslide.

No, the 2014 gubernatorial nomination is well worth having, as demonstrated by a host of public and private polling numbers that show several Democrats, including Davis, running strongly against Brownback, whose policies have alienated any number of constituencies, from the working poor to backers of public education to advocates for equitable taxation policies.

The real question is why Paul Davis, a competent but scarcely charismatic politico from the most liberal city in the state, is a likely shoo-in for the nomination. Two answers stand out. First, several potentially stronger candidates have bowed out. Second, Davis truly wants to run and has worked hard to place himself in the driver's seat.

There are at least five viable candidates who are arguably stronger than the minority leader. These include, in no particular order: former Gov. Mark Parkinson, Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger, former Wyandotte County Mayor Joe Reardon, and two-term Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, along with Wichita businesswoman and former Regent Jill Docking.

Given their moderate Republican backgrounds, Parkinson and Praeger would seem ideally suited to rebuild Kathleen Sebelius's coalition of Democrats, independents and centrist Republicans. Despite some serious pressure, however, neither has expressed any willingness to run.

Likewise, mayors Reardon and Brewer, while exhibiting real political strength in -- and beyond -- their respective jurisdictions, have just said no, even though they, like Praeger and Parkinson, could probably have mounted serious, well-funded campaigns.

That leaves Jill Docking, in many ways the most promising potential candidate, who has, over the past few months, consistently expressed a strong desire to defeat Gov. Brownback. Given her gender, Wichita location and private-sector background, to say nothing of her formidable political name, Docking would seem a great fit to oppose a highly conservative incumbent with low job approval ratings.

Despite endless entreaties and soul searching, Docking continues to resist entering the race, even though her name recognition and ability to raise money would make her a daunting challenger, albeit an underdog. In part, this reluctance derives from her experience from the 1996 senatorial race against Brownback, in which she endured a series of late-campaign attacks.

Indeed, all the prospective opponents understand Sam Brownback will have access to unlimited funds and that his campaign, coupled with the spending of outside groups, likely will impose overwhelming personal costs on the Democratic nominee.

Which gets us back to Paul Davis. As the other potential candidates have backed away, Davis has stepped up. He embarked upon an extensive "listening tour" across the state, has hired first-rate political consultants and has made extensive campaign plans.

Perhaps some other Democrat will take the plunge, but a year out from the primary election Paul Davis is by far the most likely nominee. Although he's a seasoned legislator, Davis's greatest asset is his measured eagerness to enter the race, not as a placeholder, but as a candidate who believes that he can win.

Historically, Kansas does elect Democratic governors -- a lot of them, actually -- but usually when Republican incumbents have been held accountable for unpopular policies. The question is: Can Paul Davis convincingly make this case to Kansas voters?

Although that's no certainty, one thing is clear. In August, Davis stands ready to make the case, in stark contrast to his peers in the first rank of potential Democratic candidates.

Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas and has known Paul Davis since he was 4 years old.

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