TOPEKA — Kansas Democrats found themselves scrambling for a major candidate for governor — again — after political newcomer Tom Wiggans abruptly exited the race Wednesday.
Wiggans, an Olathe resident and former pharmaceutical executive, acknowledged problems raising campaign money and said he was "unknown to many voters and donors."
Wiggans' announcement came not even a month after he entered the race and before he had delivered a single speech. Still, Democratic leaders had touted him as the party's best chance to beat Republican U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback in next year's gubernatorial election.
Wiggans is a native Kansan who returned to the state a year ago after a career in the pharmaceutical industry. His background as an entrepreneur and his personal wealth immediately were attractive to the state's minority party.
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But it was too little, too late.
In his statement, Wiggans said he needed "more time and resources than I can assemble to mount a winning campaign."
Wiggans' campaign, however, was under fire almost before it could take off. News reports two weeks ago revealed that his former company settled a $12 million class-action suit last fall alleging that executives misled investors. The Securities and Exchange Commission also investigated possible insider trading at the company.
Wiggans denied any wrongdoing. But Brownback's campaign manager called him a fraud, and some political observers said the damage already was done.
Wiggans failed to quickly introduce himself to the state, according to Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political science professor. That allowed Brownback's campaign to seize on news of the settlement and deal Wiggans a devastating, early blow.
"Any good opposition will try to define you," Beatty said. "He (Wiggans) allowed the Brownback campaign to get the first shot. It looks like Wiggans' campaign decided it was a blow he couldn't recover from."
It's the latest setback for state Democrats, who have struggled to field candidates for big races since Gov. Kathleen Sebelius left to become U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services.
Current Gov. Mark Parkinson announced a year ago that he wouldn't run, disappointing many Democrats who hoped the former Republican would become their new champion. Party chairman Larry Gates opted out. So did state Sen. Chris Steineger of Kansas City, Kan., who considered running but changed his mind after party leaders backed Wiggans.
Steineger said Wiggans' exit hasn't changed his mind. He criticized party leaders for the current lack of a major candidate.
"The party insiders just can't get their stuff together," Steineger said. "I lay it on them. They're dysfunctional. I think it's directly their fault that we're in this situation."
Leading Democrats insist they won't give up until they find a candidate capable of mounting a viable campaign.
"We can't just let Sam Brownback walk into the governor's office," said House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence.
The sole Democrat in the race is Herbert West of Paola, who was an unsuccessful candidate for Miami County sheriff in 2008. West could not be reached for comment.