If you are a moderate or traditional Republican pining for the days of Govs. Bob Bennett, Mike Hayden, and Bill Graves, then Ed O’Malley is your candidate.
If the field does not narrow quickly, Kris Kobach will win the GOP primary in a walk, leaving only the Democratic nominee and wild card Greg Orman standing between our lawsuit-losing, anti-immigration firebrand and the Kansas governorship. Kobach ally Donald Trump won Kansas by 20 points, so his defeat by even the best Democrat is far from certain. Meanwhile, Orman is depending on an infusion of independent votes that nearly all political scientists find highly implausible. In truth, Orman may cost the Democrats precious votes. This may leave Kobach the last man standing. Kobach’s economic and educational policies would largely mirror Brownback’s.
On paper, the strongest alternative to Kobach is newly sworn in Gov. Jeff Colyer, who has proven quite effective at fundraising. However, Colyer will have trouble disassociating himself from the unpopular Brownback Administration in which he served, and from policies he has consistently supported. Nor is Colyer much of a public speaker. Pundits may be reminded of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the political scion, mainstream darling, and fundraising powerhouse. The conventional wisdom predicted Bush would be the 2016 Republican Presidential nominee. Yet Bush was unprepared for this age of reality-TV politics and backlash against “the establishment.” In the primaries, Bush did not even make the first cut. Colyer may face a similar fate. Furthermore, Colyer has not distinguished himself during the on-again, off-again, will-he-or-won’t-he saga of Brownback’s new job, stepping aside quietly while the outgoing governor gave the State of the State address in January. This is not the kind of aggressive, no-sissies leadership that Republicans expect.
Other Republicans have trouble differentiating themselves. Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer is running on his qualifications as a CPA — outstanding for his current job, but too technical for a governor. Former state representative Mark Hutton promises to bring together the GOP factions, but that is a tall order given the vehement opposition of moderates to Brownback’s legacy. Hutton also lacks statewide name recognition or much political experience. Former state Sen. Jim Barnett is a possibility, but he would have to overcome the legacy of a decisive defeat by Kathleen Sebelius in 2006. Barnett has often identified as a moderate, but he has a history of vacillation on the moderate-conservative question. Can he project the “here I am, take it or leave it” persona that Republicans demand in the Trump era? Finally, libertarian businessman Wink Hartman is a dark horse with no prior service in public office.
Only O’Malley stands as unequivocally and unabashedly moderate. As a legislator, he helped negotiate a school finance formula that was fully funded for several years. O’Malley has proven a constant, vocal critic of the Brownback-Colyer-Kobach legacy, and unlike several others, he has no ties to Brownback. O’Malley’s base includes the vote- and contribution-rich Johnson County, which he once represented in the Statehouse, and Wichita, where he now leads the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC), making quiet, behind-the-scenes contacts around the state. O’Malley seems able to seek input from across the political spectrum without trying too hard to be all things to all people.
The GOP field needs to narrow sharply, and soon, or it is Kobach’s to lose. One candidate stands to inherit the Graves, Hayden, and Bennett mantle as a true and consistent moderate. The GOP field should narrow to a Kobach-O’Malley race, and it should do so posthaste.
Michael Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University and an Insight Kansas columnist.