I know, I know, it’s still more than 13 months before Kansans elect a governor, so why such early analysis? A reasonable question, but given that we have more than 10 announced or probable candidates, it makes sense to think things through. Let’s go.
1. The 2018 election shapes up as the most wide open and uncertain since Kansas adopted four-year terms for governor in 1974. Although a recent Steve Rose column in the Kansas City Star suggested that Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Democratic House Minority Leader Jim Ward would face off, such a presumption seems beyond premature. We also have soon-to-be governor Jeff Colyer, Insurance Commissioner Ken Seltzer, businessman Wink Hartman, former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Jim Barnett, former legislator and non-profit head Ed O’Malley, former legislator Tom Hutton, all Republicans. Democrats include former legislator and Secretary of Agriculture Josh Svaty, former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer, Arden Anderson, and a 16-year-old high school student, Jack Bergeson, who cleverly ascertained that Kansas has no minimum age for governor.
2. The best-known GOP candidate is also the least liked. Kobach has the highest name recognition; being a well-known Republican should be an advantage. But Kobach is far more notorious than popular. Indeed, when one recent survey identified him with a given immigration policy, support for that policy dropped by ten percentage points.
3. If Kobach is nominated, torrents of national money will flow into Kansas, a lot for Kobach, but far more against him. The Secretary of State has spent seven years making himself a national figure, with the upshot that he will serve as a powerful magnet for out-of-state money to oppose his candidacy. Short take, nationally he is toxic for many major liberal and moderate funders.
4. The three Democratic candidates reside far away from the votes they need most. The Democratic primary will favor the candidate who can do well in Johnson, Wyandotte, Douglas, and Shawnee counties, as opposed to Wichita and rural Kansas.
5. Might a Democrat from northeast Kansas still enter the race? Right now, despite much recruitment and enticement, it looks unlikely. Ironically, several moderate Republicans from Johnson County might well have put themselves in a good position to seek the nomination by switching parties before the 2016 elections
6. GOP consultants will prosper. Still, I want to be in the room when a consultant outlines the “path to victory” (in both primary and general elections) to all the Republican candidates except Kobach. “Oh, Mr. Seltzer here is how you distinguish yourself from the Republican herd and then defeat the candidate (Kobach) with a stranglehold on the far right voters who dominate primary elections.”
7. Will there be six or seven candidates in the GOP field, or will it winnow down to just three or four? For Kobach, of course, given his attraction to base voters, the more the merrier.
8. Will (Can?) a pro-life Democrat, Josh Svaty, win that party’s primary? A truly difficult task, even though he might be the strongest general election candidate.
9. Did the 2016 election foreshadow a return to moderate-conservative government in KS? If the Kansas House retains its partisan balance and someone not named Kobach wins, the answer is “yes.”
10. Last, but certainly not least, will Greg Orman run for Governor as an Independent? Orman’s decision complicates everything. Republicans see him as a Democrat, Democrats see him as the ultimate spoiler. Orman sees himself as a savior. Kris Kobach, who might well lose a head-to-head race with Democrat, likely sees him as his best pathway to Cedar Crest.
Welcome to the 2018 governor’s race.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.