House Democratic Leader Jim Ward is running for governor, jumping into the race after months of flirting with the idea.
Ward, a Wichitan with a reputation as a bulldog debater in the Legislature, says a "strong, bold governor" can make a huge difference in Kansas. He added that he wants to work with moderate Republicans and independents.
He signaled he is prepared to fight as he campaigns but wants to avoid a "constant barrage" of negativity, saying people were repulsed by that in the 2016 presidential election.
"I’m going to aggressively talk about what I believe the future of Kansas would be under a Ward administration moving forward. And I will punch back," Ward said.
"And I think I have a huge, vast majority of Kansans that are on my side: that they’re really tired of politics always being about personal destruction and attack and they really want people to talk about how you can solve problems that help their lives."
Ward will face former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer and former state representative Josh Svaty for the Democratic nomination.
Whoever wins will face off against the Republican nominee. The field includes Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, former state senator Jim Barnett, businessman Wink Hartman and entrepreneur Ed O’Malley.
Ward said he wants to ensure Kansas is fiscally responsible, has good schools and is working to increase jobs – mainstays of most candidates. Lawmakers have made significant progress over the past year, he said, but much more is needed.
This spring, House Democrats under Ward’s direction partnered with moderate Republicans to roll back much of Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature 2012 tax cuts. They also helped pass Medicaid expansion but were unable to overcome Brownback’s veto.
"The energy is moving forward and this election is going to be about whether we continue to move forward or do we maintain the Brownback experiment under a different name," Ward said.
Ward is a former Sedgwick County assistant district attorney. He also served on the Wichita city council and school board.
The race is the first contested Democratic gubernatorial primary in Kansas in 20 years.
"Ward puts the final piece in there. Because you’ve got Brewer, the mayor; you’ve got Svaty, a little bit of the young outsider; and then you’ve got Ward, more of the establishment – he’s in the Legislature," said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University.
Chris Reeves, a Democratic national committeeman for Kansas, said Ward can say in the primary that he has been on the ground in the Legislature fighting for Medicaid expansion and other policies.
"Ward is going to put out he’s been one of the most active on child abuse and prison safety, which he’s brought up in the Statehouse for years," Reeves said. "So it’s not like a new game, it’s not as if he’s just adopting those issues now. People can go back and say that’s where he was."
Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said Ward has been controversial even within the Democratic Party and Republicans welcome his entry into the race.
"He’s got a long-term voting record that we believe is completely out of step with Kansas values," Arnold said.
Ward has provoked the ire of Republicans at times. In 2012, GOP lawmakers led an effort to censure Ward, alleging he misled the House when he offered an amendment on a property tax relief bill that effectively switched the underlying Republican-backed idea with a Democrat-backed plan.
A House investigative panel later dismissed a complaint against him.
Ward was also arrested in 2007 on suspicion of driving under the influence when he was pulled over in Topeka. He would not submit to a breathalyzer test. Ward said he made a mistake and deeply regretted it.
"As I told my district when it happened: It would never happen again. It hasn’t and nor will it," Ward said.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Ward’s reputation as a progressive firebrand offers a contrast with Svaty and Brewer.
"Ward has the street fighter reputation, the person who takes jabs and doesn’t mind going on the attack," Miller said.
There are pros and cons to that approach, he added.
Some moderate Republicans, who could be the decisive voters in the 2018 election, have animosity toward Ward, Miller said. That could prove problematic, even if Kobach – the most prominent Republican in the race – is the GOP nominee.
Ward has at times criticized moderate Republican lawmakers when he thought they were not standing up to Brownback.
"There are some moderates I’ve talked to who really dislike Kris Kobach and their sentiment has been that if the race is Kobach versus Ward they’ll vote for Kobach because they dislike Ward that much," he said.
But at the same time, Democrats need to be aggressive if they’re going to sway voters in a Republican-leaning state, Millers said.
"The challenge the Democrats have is they live in a state where most voters prefer the other brand… and if most people prefer the other brand the way that you get them to switch brands is being aggressive," he said. "Vanilla doesn’t really convey that message well."