Kansas voters will head to the polls on Aug. 3 to choose the party nominees for Kansas secretary of state, who is the chief elections officer of the state and also in charge of registering and regulating a variety of businesses. With Republican four-term incumbent Ron Thornburgh retiring this year, the election produced well-known candidates from both parties.
And in what should be a welcome event for those voters who complain that "all the candidates are alike," the two front-runners from each party — Kris Kobach and Elizabeth Ensley on the GOP side and Chris Biggs and Chris Steineger on the Democratic side — couldn't be more different.
Kobach and Steineger are the provocateurs. For Kobach the defining issue, and the one that consumes much of his time and energy, is illegal immigration. He has become a national figure for his work on illegal immigrant-related matters, even helping to write the new law in Arizona that has created a maelstrom of controversy and is being challenged by the U.S. Justice Department.
He has hit the big time with his immigration work, appearing on numerous national cable programs and being profiled in the New York Times. He has met some obstacles — losing a congressional race in 2004 and, more recently, receiving criticism for lax oversight of the Kansas Republican Party while he was executive director — but has not been deterred in pursuit of an office from which he believes he can address an illegal immigrant-related issue, illegal voting.
As a Democratic state senator from Kansas City, Kan., Steineger has proffered ideas — such as merging all the state's counties into 13 "super counties" — that have not been welcomed by even those in his own party. Steineger says that he's a "black sheep" Democrat. Yet he perseveres, pushing ideas in his campaign for secretary of state that include universal health care and environmental conservation.
One definition of "professional" is simply having a profession as a permanent career. Ensley and Biggs are the professionals. Like former Secretaries of State Bill Graves and Thornburgh — who both worked in the office in various capacities for more than 15 years — Ensley worked in the Secretary of State's Office for 11 years and has added another 18 years as the Shawnee County election commissioner. Her campaign website is absent of national media coverage, but instead features endorsements from eight former GOP chairmen along with Graves, Thornburgh and another former secretary of state, Jack Brier.
Current Secretary of State Biggs — appointed by Gov. Mark Parkinson to finish Thornburgh's term — also comes across as an administrator more than an issue advocate. Biggs certainly is not without ambition — he ran for attorney general in 2002, losing by less than 1 percent of the vote — but has a history of staying in one place without getting politically antsy: He served as Geary County prosecutor from 1988 to 2002, and for the past seven years was Kansas' securities commissioner, overseeing an office of 31 employees and a nearly $3 million budget.
So there you have it: the rare Kansas statewide race that offers a good primary for both parties, and the added bonus of offering us all a fascinating glimpse into the type of candidate the voters prefer to represent them in a statewide office.