TOPEKA — If you haven’t noticed, this year’s gubernatorial race is a little unusual.
Although the five candidates on the ballot include a noteworthy independent -- Johnson County businessman Greg Orman -- all polls indicate a two-person race in which Republican Kris Kobach and Democrat Laura Kelly are tied and as few as 4 percent of voters have yet to make up their minds.
In a conversation for Capitol Insider, the political podcast of The Topeka Capital-Journal, Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty said the low number of undecided voters was “incredible.” One of the main factors, he said, is the notoriety of Kobach, the brash secretary of state whose crusade against immigration placed him in the national spotlight.
“The thing about elections is you think you’ve seen it all,” Beatty said, “but then something like a Jeep with a Trump bobblehead on it comes through and you know it’s going to be an interesting year.”
Kobach has unapologetically paraded in the flag-painted Jeep, despite criticism of the replica machine gun mounted on top.
Beatty said Kobach is one of two figures in Kansas politics that everybody seems to have an opinion on. The other is former Gov. Sam Brownback, whose disapproval ratings reached unforeseen levels before he resigned to take a job as an ambassador under President Donald Trump.
Kelly, a state senator from Topeka, has tried to paint Kobach as a Brownback retread. That strategy is vulnerable, Beatty said, because Brownback won re-election four years ago, when he was relatively unpopular, by motivating his base to vote in higher numbers than Democrats.
Kobach seems to be following the Brownback playbook by appealing to conservatives with welfare reform -- something the former governor did in the final two weeks of his 2014 campaign. Last week, Kobach proposed new restrictions for those who receive Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance.
“He needs that little extra, and that little extra is going to come from just Republicans -- not necessarily huge Trump fans, but lifelong Republicans who have maybe never voted for a Democrat in their life,” Beatty said.
One advantage for Kelly: Kobach is isolated. When he makes a proposal, Beatty said, all four opponents complain about him. That includes Libertarian Jeff Caldwell and independent Rick Kloos.
Polling shows tepid support for Orman, with just 9 to 12 percent saying they will vote for him. After a competitive congressional race with Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts four years ago, some thought Orman would have a stronger showing.
“I would argue it’s not necessarily surprising,” Beatty said. “Nothing against Orman, but independent candidates running for statewide office or federal office are unbelievably rare in the United States. Obviously, we don’t see too many of them. So what he took on in the first place was a Herculean task.”
Kobach’s legacy is having an impact on the race to replace him as secretary of state. All three candidates -- Republican Rep. Scott Schwab, Democrat Brian McClendon and Libertarian Rob Hodgkinson -- have been critical of Kobach. They say they would abandon his anti-immigration campaign and prosecutorial power for the rare voter fraud cases.
The biggest shock with the race is the decision by McClendon, a former Google executive, to seek an office no Democrat has won since 1949 instead of using his resources to pursue the governor’s office or a congressional seat.
Schwab leads by 9 points in polling, but Beatty called it a sleeper race because McClendon has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on social media ads. The gamble is a test of traditional campaign strategy.
“If McClendon wins,” Beatty said, “we get to analyze this and say, ‘Wow, this is the future of campaigns.’ If he loses, then we wag our fingers.”
Another indication this is an unusual election cycle for Kansas: Democrats could win congressional seats in both the 2nd and 3rd districts.
Record spending has fueled vicious attacks against Democrat Paul Davis and Republican Steve Watkins as national party leaders jostle for control of the House. Polling shows the two are tied.
If Davis wins, Beatty said, “we’ve got a blue wave going on around the country because Trump won by over 15 points” in the district.
Hillary Clinton received more votes in the 3rd District, where Democrat Sharice Davids appears to be pulling away from incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder. Davids has raised a staggering amount of money, including $2.5 million in the third quarter.
Yoder has criticized her for declining to debate, which Beatty said was a delicious irony in a state where Republicans with a comfortable lead have a history of refusing to debate.
“She feels that she gains nothing by taking the chance and stumbling around doing something in a debate,” Beatty said.