TOPEKA — Kansas first responders are divided over which candidate to back for governor, with firefighters supporting Republican Kris Kobach but police siding with Democrat Laura Kelly.
In August, Kobach won the endorsement of the Kansas State Council of Firefighters — the state’s largest firefighters union and a group that has long sided with Democrats.
On Monday, the Kansas Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Kelly, opening a police-fire divide.
The split showcases the fight between the two candidates for support from unions, which often back Democrats. Still, Kelly is leading the count; while Kobach has won over one union, several others are going with Kelly.
Kelly said she has a strong hold on union support.
“I think all you need to do ... is look at the laundry list of union organizations that are supporting me. The FOP was just one more of those,” Kelly said.
But even a small amount of union support could make a difference for Kobach in a race that polls have previously shown is effectively tied. The last poll, conducted Sept. 30 to Oct. 1, showed Kobach with a 1-point lead over Kelly.
Kobach has explicitly courted union support during his campaign. In public statements, Kobach’s campaign has spoken of his “commitment to protecting and defending working men and women.”
He was the only Republican candidate for governor to address a conference of Kansas firefighters in June. He has also relied on hunting partner Keith Mark, a Democrat, to help make inroads among unions.
Kobach credits, in part, his support for tougher action against illegal immigration for winning some union support.
He has also staked out a pro-union position on the state’s worker’s compensation law. He said it’s a big reason why the firefighters council endorsed him.
“They recognize that I care about the working person,” Kobach said.
Guidelines from the American Medical Association play a key role in determining how much money thousands of injured Kansas workers receive each year. Kansas began using a newer set of guidelines in 2015 that critics say too often unfairly limits compensation.
Kobach and Kelly both want to return the state to an earlier version of the guidelines seen as friendlier to workers. Independent Greg Orman, who is polling a distant third in the governor’s race, also agrees the current guidelines go too far.
Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said she understands why firefighters would endorse Kobach based on his position on workers compensation. She predicted the issue will likely come before her committee in 2019.
“I imagine it will be very lively,” Lynn said.
In their respective endorsements, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Kansas State Council of Firefighters Council described Kelly and Kobach as championing workers.
Blaine Dryden, president of the Kansas Fraternal Order of Police, said in a letter endorsing Kelly that she had demonstrated unwavering support for law enforcement “along with working-class people” and she supports collective bargaining rights for all public safety employees and “positive and sensible changes” to the worker compensation laws.
“Other candidates may talk about being tough on crime, but no one has been a better friend to law enforcement officers than Laura Kelly,” Dryden wrote.
The firefighters council, on the other hand, said Kobach truly cares about firefighters.
“My members know ... you will do everything to keep firefighters and all first responders as safe as possible,” council president Robert Wing said in August.
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Kobach is strongly associated with President Donald Trump, who has been able to make a connection with working class voters and some voters who have traditionally supported Democrats.
But he emphasized that when it comes to union support in Kansas, nothing matches Kansas National Education Association, the state’s primary teachers union. The organization has strongly endorsed Kelly.
“In terms of political power, the key union is the teachers and Kelly’s got them,” Beatty said.