Josh Svaty, a centrist Democrat running for governor, has taken heat during his campaign for pro-life votes he made while he was in the Kansas Legislature.
But the 38-year-old appeared to take a step to the left Wednesday as he picked 40-year-old Katrina Lewison as his running mate.
"Quite simply, I'm pro-choice," Lewison said during a news conference. "And I think instead I'd like to shift the conversation to something that both Josh and I support which is expanding women's access to quality healthcare across the state."
She added later: "I learned a long time ago to stand up for my rights as a woman, what goes on in my body, and it's something that I'm teaching my daughters as well.”
Planned Parenthood called Svaty an "extremist" last year based on his an anti-abortion voting record.
Laura McQuade, then president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, vowed last May to stop Svaty “from gaining even the slightest political foothold in Kansas.”
After Svaty's announcement Wednesday, Brandon Hill, Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes President and CEO, said Lewison is "a qualified running mate."
But the organization remains concerned about Svaty.
"(Lewison's) addition to the ticket doesn’t show us that sexual and reproductive rights are a true priority for Svaty’s campaign," Hill said in a statement. "Women across Kansas deserve a governor who will be an unwavering advocate for reproductive rights. There are candidates in the race who have demonstrated their support for access to safe, legal abortion."
This year's race is the first contested primary for Kansas Democrats since 1998. Other prominent Democrats in the field include state Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka and former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer.
Lewison is an Iraq war veteran and former Black Hawk helicopter pilot whom Svaty saw as a potential lieutenant governor after meeting her on the campaign trail. She graduated from West Point after growing up in Hutchinson and Buhler, Kan.
The mother of three now lives in Manhattan, where she works as a director of consulting and training at CivicPlus and is a member of the Manhattan-Ogden school board, according to Svaty’s campaign.
Candidates on the Republican side include Gov. Jeff Colyer, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer and former nominee Jim Barnett.
Independent Greg Orman is also in the race. Colyer, Kobach and Orman announced running mates earlier this year.
Based of the introductory press conference, Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Lewison should help Svaty “a lot in this campaign.”
“If he wins the primary, I think she’d be a real surprise to many voters who don’t pay attention much to the primaries and see her in the general election,” Beatty said. “... It’s a very good pick for him.”
Svaty was elected to the Kansas House at age 22. He then spent seven years in the House before working as secretary of agriculture under Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson.
Asked if Lewison and Svaty were comfortable with each other's abortion views, Svaty said Wednesday: "She is comfortable with where I am. She has confidence in this ticket."
"I voted pro-life when I was in the House,” Svaty said. “I've said now ... that I would veto any new restrictions on women's reproductive rights. The state can't constitutionally do hardly anything else. We cannot as a state be spending our time and our money defending laws that are simply not constitutional."
The Kansas Republican Party did not immediately return requests for comment on Svaty’s pick.