Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer stepped into the race for governor on Tuesday as he prepares to assume the office Gov. Sam Brownback may soon vacate.
He faces several Republican opponents, and will have to navigate his closeness to Brownback, who has low approval ratings.
“It’s time for a new day in Kansas. It’s time to listen, to lead, and to bring people together. I am fully committed to doing the work necessary to win the 2018 race for Governor, and today’s announcement is a first step toward that victory,” Colyer said in a statement, where he announced that had named a campaign treasurer.
Since President Donald Trump nominated Brownback to be ambassador at large for international religious freedom last month, Colyer, 57, has spoken of setting a “new tone” for Kansas. Colyer could become governor in a matter of weeks if Brownback is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
As he begins his campaign, Colyer has signaled a shift from Brownback in style.
“I want us to talk more. I really want us to work on this and I think there are opportunities – people are willing to do it. We will still have significant disagreements…but I’m listening to Kansans and I think there’s opportunities for us,” Colyer said.
If Colyer were to win the Republican nomination, Democrats have already signaled they would emphasize Colyer’s connection to Brownback. In its response to Colyer’s announcement, the Kansas Democratic Party argued Colyer as governor represents another term for Brownback.
“If there’s one thing that unites all Kansans, it’s that there’s no appetite for a third Brownback term. Voters aren’t going to entrust the job of rebuilding the state to the very same person who has spent the past seven years tearing it down,” party chairman John Gibson said.
Last week at the Wichita Pachyderm Club, Colyer expressed a desire to move on from this year’s battle over Brownback’s signature tax policy. The Legislature repealed much of the policy in June, but Colyer said “what’s happened has happened.”
Colyer’s statement on Tuesday suggests additional ways he will attempt to place daylight between himself and Brownback.
It made no mention of Brownback – but did include Colyer’s time as a White House fellow under President Ronald Reagan. The statement made only one mention of him as lieutenant governor, and after that called him “Dr. Colyer.”
“The beginning of his campaign is showing a willingness to distance himself from Brownback and the real key right off the bat is in the statements we’re hearing he’s not a Brownback Kansan, he’s a Reagan conservative,” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka.
Colyer has not broken with Brownback on policy, however, and he didn’t go deep on policy issues on Tuesday.
Colyer wouldn’t say whether he would support Medicaid expansion if the federal health care law remains unchanged when the Legislature reconvenes in January. He has been steadfastly opposed to Medicaid expansion, like Brownback.
In 2013, Colyer led efforts to create the state’s privatized Medicaid program, called KanCare. Medicaid provides health coverage to low-income adults, individuals with disabilities and helps pay for nursing care for the elderly.
Asked whether he supports immediate pay raises for corrections officers, Colyer said: “We’re going to be talking about policy issues at another time.” Prisons at El Dorado and Lansing are experiencing large numbers of vacant staff positions.
Colyer’s appointment of a campaign treasurer came the day after Kansas insurance commissioner Ken Selzer said he is running for governor.
In addition to Colyer and Selzer, the Republican field now includes Secretary of State Kris Kobach, businessman Wink Hartman and former state senator Jim Barnett. Entrepreneur Ed O’Malley is running an exploratory campaign.
On the Democratic side, former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer and former state representative Josh Svaty are running.
The number of candidates on the Republican side begins to recall the 2016 Republican presidential race, Beatty said. In that case, numerous Republican candidates vied for attention but none were able to match Donald Trump.
Kobach, who is adamant Trump supporter, is generally thought to have the highest name recognition of any candidate in the race so far.
“Kobach is such a unique politician in the state of Kansas it’s so hard to know absent any polling how much support he really has,” Beatty said.