Wichita is the largest single city in Kansas, and yet it’s been a century since Wichita produced a governor of Kansas. Why?
True, Mark Parkinson was born in Wichita, and Edward Arn had a law practice here — but when it came to politics, both lived and built their careers in the Kansas City area. The last real example of a Wichitan in the governor’s mansion was Henry J. Allen, a newspaperman who came to Wichita and built a small publishing empire from here before being elected governor in 1919.
There’s no law mandating where governors come from, of course. If you look through the list of Kansas 46 governors, dozens of Kansas cities, towns, and rural counties are represented. Still, there are some commonalities, especially over the past half-century: some connection to the University of Kansas, to the state capital in Topeka, or to the cross-border urban agglomeration of Kansas City. Given the way in which politics is often a function of path dependency — people making use of the same personal and financial connections that others had already successfully used, thus deepening them — maybe it isn’t surprising that our city, despite its large population and economic base, should go a century without providing a successful gubernatorial candidate.
Will 2018 break the drought? Among the serious candidates there are multiple Wichitans: Republicans Wink Hartman and Mark Hutton (and maybe Ed O’Malley counts as an adopted son), and Democrats Carl Brewer and Jim Ward. Perhaps this year we’ll see an upset.
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But then again, perhaps not. Recently, I was asked if I thought both parties colluded to maintain the political dominance of the Topeka-Lawrence-KC corridor. That’s highly unlikely but yet, when one compares the positioning taking place in our state parties in light of recent campaign finance data, and the analysis provided by The Eagle, one does wonder.
Kris Kobach, thanks to his name recognition and his small core of ideologically committed followers, is widely labeled the favorite to win the Republican nomination, with Lt. Governor Jeff Colyer seen as his most plausible rival. This despite the fact that Hartman has more money to spend on his campaign than both of them combined, and that O’Malley and Hutton both have had more individual supporters here in Kansas than either of the front-runners as well.
Similarly, on the Democratic side, the late entrance of Topeka-based Laura Kelly into the race was surely at least partly the result of a panicked party establishment convinced that they needed a better connected candidate than a couple of politicians from Wichita. This despite the fact that their level of statewide name recognition (Brewer’s in particular) dwarfs hers. That Kelly’s fundraising has quickly outpaced all the other Democratic candidates might reflect the accuracy of the party’s judgment — or then again, maybe it’s just another example of how the entrenched political connections of northeast Kansas are self-reinforcing.
Ultimately, I suspect Wichitans running for governor face a challenge similar to our city’s social and economic prospects as a whole: namely, we often feel stuck in the middle, too big not to be considered a major player, but not big enough to compete with the major players who came before us. We clearly have the people (consider the candidates) and the money (Wichita-area donors max out their contributions more frequently than those elsewhere in the state). But is that enough to convince political operatives and party establishments to take us seriously?
Time will tell, of course. Location is only one of the variables in this race. Still, if any of those Wichita candidates break through, they’ll be doing more than ending a long political drought: They may also open the doors to a political change in our state parties which is long overdue.
Dr. Russell Fox is a political science professor at Friends University.