Politics & Government

Who's running as a Democrat for three top offices in Kansas? No one, so far

Republicans could win three top Kansas offices by default in two weeks, unless Democrats decide to run.

No Democrats have said they are running for attorney general, insurance commissioner and state treasurer. That’s three of the five statewide offices on the ballot this fall. The deadline to file is June 1.

The lack of candidates comes even as Democrats line up to run for governor and Congress. Democrats are expected to have their first contested primary for governor in 20 years.

Party leaders suggested Monday that candidates will enter the race in the next couple of weeks but didn’t get into specifics.

“I think they’ll be good, strong candidates. The people we’re talking to will be really strong candidates. They will not be just placeholders,” said Ethan Corson, the state party director.

Democrats have fielded candidates for attorney general, insurance commissioner and treasurer in each election cycle since at least 2002, with the exception of 2010, when no Democrat ran for insurance commissioner.

“Not having statewide offices filled is, I think, a big failure on the part of the party,” said Joan Wagnon, a former Kansas Democratic Party chairwoman.

The positions — especially insurance commissioner and treasurer — do not typically attract the attention devoted to gubernatorial and congressional races. The jobs of insurance commissioner and treasurer are often noncontroversial, with officeholders publicly focused more on administering their offices than partisan politics.

They are also challenging for Democrats to win. In 2014, the Democratic candidates for those offices failed to draw more than 41 percent of the vote.

But the positions can serve as a springboard for ambitious politicians. Democrat Kathleen Sebelius made the jump from insurance commissioner to governor, and Republican Ron Estes went from treasurer to congressman.

“Those races prepare people to run for even higher office, and for governor,” Wagnon said.

Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt appears content to run for re-election this time, though he has been mentioned as a possible for candidate for governor or Congress in the future.

He has no Republican or Democratic opponents, except Vermin Supreme, who runs for office around the country as a performance artist. Any would-be challenger would face a war chest of more than $411,000, according to the latest available campaign finance filings from January.

The races for insurance commissioner and treasurer are more open.

Ken Selzer, the current commissioner, is running for governor. Assistant Commissioner Clark Shultz and Topeka Sen. Vicki Schmidt are running in the Republican primary to replace him.

In the state treasurer’s race, the current Republican treasurer has not been elected to the job. Former Gov. Sam Brownback appointed Jake LaTurner in 2017 after Estes resigned to join Congress. No other Republicans are running against him.

“For those who don’t get challenged, it’s a testament to the work they’ve done,” said Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party.

Kansas law does allow primary voters to select nominees for the positions even if no one runs, but it would be difficult to do that. During the August primary election, if someone receives the write-in vote of 5 percent of registered voters statewide or 5,000 votes — whichever is smaller — that person will appear on the general election ballot.

Democrats have held all three positions in the recent past. A Democrat was attorney general before Schmidt. Sebelius was insurance commissioner. And a Democrat was appointed to serve as treasurer in 2009 and 2010 but was defeated in an election.

The treasurer — Dennis McKinney — said it is hard for Democrats to raise money for down-ballot races. And money is still no guarantee of success.

In 2010, when he ran against Estes for treasurer, McKinney had roughly twice the amount of contributions as Estes but still lost amid the tea party wave that swept Republicans into office at all levels.

“Quite often at the national level the Democratic Party has done a poor job of messaging, which costs candidates in red states like Kansas,” McKinney said.

In states that lean Republican or Democratic, the other party tends to have a better shot at winning the governor’s race as opposed to down-ballot offices, said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.

That's because voters don’t pay as much attention to down-ballot races, so their partisan leanings play a larger role in guiding their decisions, Miller said. In Kansas, that means Democratic candidates generally have a harder time breaking through.

Not having a candidate running in all races won’t necessarily hurt the party, he said. Still, it is better if Democrats have candidates, if for no other reason than not having one looks bad, he said.

“If we get to June and they haven’t done that, I think that certainly is an institutional failure, when otherwise they have a wealth of candidates” in some races, Miller said.

The 2018 campaign for Kansas governor is producing a large amount of candidates. Here are the Republican, Democratic, and Independent candidates