Politics & Government

Democratic primary battle for governor more likely as Ward opens door to run


Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita
Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita The Wichita Eagle

The top Democrat in the Kansas House says he has been approached about running for governor, increasing the likelihood of the first contested Democratic primary for the office in two decades.

Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer entered the race in February, and former state Agriculture Secretary Josh Svaty says he is considering a run.

Now, House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, has opened the door to running as well.

Former Democratic Gov. John Carlin said he visited with Brewer in January and has had discussions with Ward and Svaty more recently.

“There’ll be a lot of activity and it’ll get really open and competitive pretty soon,” said Carlin, who was the state’s governor from 1979 to 1987 and played an active role in campaigns that led to Democrats and moderate Republicans picking up seats in the Legislature in November.

A three-way contest for governor would be unusual for Kansas Democrats, who typically try to coalesce around a single candidate and avoid long, bitter nominating fights.

“Serious people have talked to me about the governor’s race, but right now my focus is getting the heavy lifting of the Legislature done. After we get done with the legislative session we will sit down and look at this,” Ward said Friday.

Asked what the phrase “serious people” meant and whether it referred to party leaders or donors, Ward said, “I’ve heard from all of the above. I’ve heard from Republicans. I’ve heard from a lot of different people that I consider serious that this is something that I should look at it.”

Ward, a former Sedgwick County assistant district attorney, was first elected to the House in 2002. He has developed a reputation as an aggressive debater and has been stinging in his condemnation of Gov. Sam Brownback and conservative Republicans.

Last year, he rose to the position of House Democratic leader after ousting the sitting leader, Rep. Tom Burroughs of Kansas City, in legislative leadership elections.

Requests for him to enter the race have increased in the last month or so, he said.

Several consider the race

Ward’s comments come a week after Democrat Paul Davis, widely talked about as a potential gubernatorial candidate, launched a bid for Congress instead.

Davis suggested then that Democratic candidates were close to jumping in the race.

“I certainly understand that I think a number of people were waiting to see where I was heading and I think you’ll probably see some candidates that are going to emerge here in the next weeks or several months,” Davis said.

Svaty, a former state representative, reaffirmed Thursday that he is weighing a run.

“Yes, I’m looking at it,” said Svaty, who was state secretary of agriculture from 2009 to 2011.

“There’s clearly a need of leadership in the state of Kansas on a host of issues,” he said, referring to the possible closure of St. Francis Hospital in Topeka, which has reignited the debate over Medicaid expansion.

Brewer, asked last week about the possibility of primary opponents, said he was focused on “going out and connecting with individuals in every corner in Kansas.” His campaign said Friday that it had nothing more to add to that.

On the Republican side, Wichita businessman Wink Hartman has announced a bid for governor, and entrepreneur Ed O’Malley is exploring a run. Several other Republican officials are also weighing bids, including Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder.

“There’s a lot of speculation about Colyer, Kobach and Yoder,” said Clay Barker, the Kansas Republican Party’s executive director. “Some people think they’re all waiting to see who goes first after session.”

Contested primary rare

Republicans are used to wide-open, sometimes-divisive primaries, said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University. But that hasn’t been the case with Kansas Democrats.

The last time the Democrats had a contested primary for governor was in 1998. That year, Tom Sawyer of Wichita entered the race in order to prevent Fred Phelps, the leader of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, from securing the nomination.

The state’s last Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius, faced no primary opponent in her two successful campaigns for governor. The party’s nominees in the past two elections each ran unopposed.

A contested primary for governor may reflect divisions in the party, Rackaway said. Those divisions surfaced recently in the battle between former state Treasurer Dennis McKinney and attorney James Thompson for the Democratic nomination in the 4th Congressional District.

McKinney was perceived as hewing closer to the Democrat establishment while Thompson sought to project a more liberal, Bernie Sanders-type image.

The “three men really run the spectrum of Democratic thought in Kansas,” said Tom Witt, a Wichita activist and member of the Kansas Democratic Party’s executive committee.

Witt noted Svaty’s anti-abortion voting record as a member of the Legislature, while Ward has been a staunch supporter of abortion rights. Brewer did not have to delve into the issue much as a mayor, Witt said.

But Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University, suggested Brewer, Ward and Svaty may not be that far apart on policy. The race may come down more to how the candidates present themselves rather than policy differences, he said.

Brewer could tout a record working with companies as mayor and present an image of someone able to get things done, Smith said. Of the three, Ward is the “bomb thrower” who enjoys confronting Republicans, he said.

Svaty could bring a youthful charisma to the race, Smith said. “People talk about him like he’s almost like this Camelot-type figure, Jack Kennedy or something,” he said.

Rackaway said it’s an open question whether Democrats could recover from a divisive primary battle in time for the general election. At the same time, a contested primary would suggest Democrats believe they have a decent shot at winning.

“If this were a no-hoper for Democrats, no one would be lining up,” Rackaway said.

Carlin’s thoughts

Carlin said he expected Svaty to make an official announcement before Ward, who will return to Topeka in May for the end of the legislative session.

“It would be awkward for Ward to do anything now…He’s got to focus on his job. He’s a key leader in the Legislature and what they do or don’t do will impact 2018,” Carlin said. “He’s going to be tied up in the month of May.”

Carlin called Ward “a serious candidate who would look at the opportunity as one to really help the state” and said he’s gotten to know Ward better through their work on legislative races over the past year.

He noted he has known Svaty longer; Svaty represented Carlin’s old district in the Legislature during the 2000s.

“He’s got the agricultural background. He’s been an executive. He’s got the experience. He’s very well-qualified. There’s no question about it,” he said.

Carlin would not endorse a candidate, saying his focus is on electing more Democrats to the Legislature.

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3

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