Politics & Government

Democrats seek nominee for governor they like - and Republicans can like, too

As Kansas Democrats head into their first contested primary for governor in 20 years, they must not only decide what candidate they like, but also which one will appeal to independents – and even Republicans.

As Democrats debate which of the three candidates currently running best represent the party and its values, they will also have to consider each candidate’s chances in the general election where they will be searching for support not only from liberals and moderates, but also conservatives.

“The key for the Democrats – and this is tough – is it’s Kansas. They have to consider not only, ‘Who do we really like?’ but ‘Who can win the general election?’” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka.

“That’s something they have to think about more than Republicans because of the party ID.”

Republicans hold a large advantage over Democrats in voter registration in Kansas. In 2015, of the 1.7 million registered voters in the state, about 760,000 are Republicans, while around 409,000 are Democrats.

More voters claim no party affiliation – 524,000 – than say they are Democrats.

In effect, the disparity means Democrats almost certainly cannot win solely by turning out their own voters, but must win over some independents and Republicans.

Paul Davis, the Democrat who challenged Gov. Sam Brownback in 2014, sought independents and Republicans by focusing on education and fiscal responsibility – issues that have broad appeal across party lines. But Davis didn’t have a primary opponent in the race, which effectively allowed him to skip straight to running a general election campaign.

The Democratic candidates face a trickier balancing act this time. They must excite primary voters while being careful not to turn off potential non-Democratic supporters who they will need in the general election.

The primary may force the candidates to spend more time talking about issues of interest to Democrats that may not resonate as much with the broader electorate. That includes support for abortion rights, union and labor rights, and welfare, among others.

It’s a line that Carl Brewer, a former Wichita mayor who entered the race in February, is attempting to walk.

“I think the next race is about electability over ideology because Kansas is in such a critical state that we simply have to work together to get the state back on a healthy track,” Brewer said in a statement. “The state has lost $3.1 billion since Brownback first enacted his tax cuts.”

Imagine what the state’s economy, schools and population would look like with that additional money, he said.

The statement – sent by his campaign in response to questions about electability – went on to emphasize his executive experience as mayor, in particular his promotion of economic development. It’s the kind of message that could have cross-partisan appeal.

But in campaign videos posted to Twitter on Monday, Brewer speaks about how he became a union member in the 1970s and his support for union rights, including his service as a union steward. He says he will fight for labor rights as governor.

The issue has a narrower appeal in Kansas, which has been a right-to-work state for decades and where 8.6 percent of workers belonged to a union in 2016, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Chris Reeves, a Kansas Democratic national committeeman, said Brewer will try to sell voters on his executive experience. Jim Ward, the current House Democratic leader who entered the race earlier this month, will point to his record in the Legislature. And Josh Svaty, a former state representative who is also running, may frame himself as an outsider, according to Reeves.

“I think amongst each other, it’s going to be a credentials fight. It’s going to be a fight of who has the background that qualifies them to do this. Who’s most prepared to navigate the state?” Reeves said.

In the House, Ward is known as a bulldog debater willing to throw rhetorical punches at Republicans, especially those he calls “ultra-conservatives.” In his campaign, he is making a point of expressing a willingness to reach out to moderate Republicans and independents.

“The passion and the conviction won’t change,” Ward said. “But clearly, when you and I first met, we had 28 (House Democrats) and we were fighting to get our voices heard at all.”

“As a candidate for governor, we are on a stage where Kansans really want to hear how you’re going to move Kansas forward and that’s the conversation we’re going to have.”

Svaty faces his own challenges courting both primary and general election voters. He has an anti-abortion voting record from his time in the Kansas House, where he took 11 anti-abortion votes, including supporting a bill allowing a woman’s family member or partner to sue a doctor or support staff at a health center to prevent a woman from having an abortion. He has said his voting record was reflective of the values of his House district but that as governor his policies would reflect the values of all Kansans.

That record could help him in a general election. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is running for the GOP nomination but is controversial even within his own party; an anti-abortion Democrat could prove an option for some Republicans looking for an alternative if Kobach wins the primary.

On the flip side, supporting abortion rights does not necessarily harm Democrats in the general election, either. Kathleen Sebelius, who supports abortion rights, was twice-elected governor.

But Svaty’s position on abortion has already provoked controversy in the Democratic primary. Planned Parenthood has called him “an extremist.” Svaty has said it’s important to have a healthy diversity of opinions.

Svaty said in an interview he has always spent time building bridges with individuals outside the Democratic party and pointed to his time as Kansas Secretary of Agriculture under Gov. Mark Parkinson.

“You interact with a broad range of Kansans in arguably the state’s most important industry, so learning how to communicate with them and interacting them in a way that brings people together is something I always did,” Svaty said.

Ultimately, Democrats will have to make their own decision on who will best represent their party – and win over voters of all stripes.

But Beatty cautioned Democrats to keep the general election in mind.

“I think if the Democrats lose sight of that, it’s to their detriment,” Beatty said. “It’s Kansas, they should never lose sight of general election viability.”

Contributing: Bryan Lowry and Lindsay Wise of The Kansas City Star

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman