KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The first election contest of the 2014 Kansas governor’s race is just 16 weeks away.
But it won’t involve Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, or his likely Democratic opponent, Paul Davis.
Instead, two Libertarians – Keen Umbehr and Tresa McAlhaney – will face off April 26 in Wichita. There, at a state convention, roughly 150 registered Libertarians will pick a nominee for governor.
If Umbehr and McAlhaney were Republicans or Democrats, the contested nomination would be decided by secret ballot, in August, in a primary. But because Libertarians are not classified as a major party under Kansas law, they are prohibited from picking their candidate by election.
At the same time, Brownback and Davis – who are likely to run unopposed for their nominations – will be on the August ballot, in an election paid for by taxpayers.
Some Libertarians are upset at the unequal treatment. Access to the primary ballot, they say, would bring the candidates and the party more publicity this summer, increasing their chances for a good showing in November.
“We feel like we’re behind the eight ball,” said Rob Hodgkinson, vice chairman of the Libertarian Party of Kansas. “Most of the media have no idea we have two candidates. … Everything is prioritized to the major parties.”
But Umbehr and McAlhaney seem less concerned.
“It is what it is,” McAlhaney said. “We haven’t gotten major party status in the state, so we have the freedom to run our party the way that we want.”
Umbehr said he understood the rules before he decided to seek the nomination.
“That makes us work harder,” he said. “I’m not upset at all.”
Ballot access rules differ by state. In Kansas, a political party must get 5 percent of the vote in a governor’s race to achieve major party status and automatic access to a primary ballot in the following cycle.
In 2010, the Libertarian candidate for Kansas governor got 2.6 percent of the vote.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Ko bach said he thinks the 5 percent threshold is generally fair, although he said the Legislature could revisit the rule if complaints grow.
Richard Winger, who edits and publishes a newsletter and website called Ballot Access News, said the Kansas restrictions on third parties are fairly typical.
And a ballot-based primary – even one paid for by taxpayers – would not necessarily help Libertarians, he said.
“There’s no reason the press can’t cover the Libertarian gubernatorial contest even if it is a convention,” he said. “It’s still exciting.”
But because Libertarians can’t have a primary, their governor candidates aren’t even listed on the Kansas secretary of state’s website. Hodgkinson said that puts the two Libertarians at an important disadvantage.
“The last poll I saw had … independents at 12 percent,” he said. “That’s a big deal.
“If we can get close to 12 percent, it will change things for us dramatically,” he said, by increasing the visibility of the party and its candidates.
Any registered Libertarian can cast a vote at the April convention. In October 2012, there were 11,373 registered Libertarians in Kansas, less than 1 percent of all registered voters in the state.
Between 120 and 150 Libertarians are expected to take part in the April meeting.