Politics & Government

Republican defection: Kansas Gov. Colyer’s campaign chair jumps to Orman team

Gov. Jeff Colyer’s campaign chairman is endorsing independent Greg Orman’s bid for Kansas governor — a high-profile act of Republican disunity after Colyer lost a close, bitter primary race against Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Steve Baccus, who chaired Colyer’s campaign, will now co-chair the Orman campaign.

Although Democrats have expressed fears that Orman could peel away votes from Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly, the Baccus endorsement shows in at least one instance that the independent candidate can draw Republicans.

“I made it clear when I joined Governor Colyer’s campaign that I believed Kansas needed a leader who was committed to the state,” Baccus said in a statement. “While my candidate in the primary election did not succeed, I remain committed to ensuring that Kansas has the best leaders possible.

Baccus said Orman, a Johnson County businessman, is most qualified to grow the Kansas economy and lead the state.

Baccus was president of the Kansas Farm Bureau from 2002 to 2014. The Farm Bureau endorsed Colyer in the Republican primary.

When Colyer named Baccus his campaign chairman in April, Colyer said the campaign could not have asked for a “stronger, more qualified individual.”

In response to Baccus, Kobach, who has been twice elected to statewide office, said in a statement that it is “no surprise that Topeka insiders are sticking together.”

“Our campaign to fight special interests, bring good paying jobs to hard-working Kansans, and fix Topeka is not going to be popular with the special-interest crowd, and I’m okay with that,” Kobach said.

The Republican primary race between Kobach and Colyer came down to some 350 votes. The extraordinarily close margin kept the outcome in suspense for a week after polls closed. Colyer, who hinted at the possibility of recounts, conceded only after Kobach widened his lead following vote counting in key counties.

Two days after ending his bid, Colyer endorsed Kobach at a joint appearance in Topeka. At that time, he brushed aside his past attacks on Kobach, which included calling Kobach a show pony.

On Monday, Colyer reiterated his endorsement of Kobach following Baccus’s leap to the Orman camp. He said he learned of the endorsement from a news release.

“While Steve can certainly campaign for whoever he likes, I have made my support for Republican candidate Kris Kobach very clear and encourage all Republicans to rally around our nominee for Governor,” Colyer said.

Not every Republican has. Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, and Rep. Joy Koesten, a Leawood Republican who lost her primary, are both backing Kelly.

Last Monday, House Majority Leader Don Hineman, R-Dighton, cautioned more two dozen centrist lawmakers against publicly backing anyone in the governor’s race other than Kobach. He wrote in an email to them that he feared doing so would lead to serious political repercussions.

The Kelly campaign sought to use the Baccus endorsement to tie Orman to Sam Brownback, the highly unpopular former governor who resigned in January to take a diplomatic post in Washington.

“The campaign chair of Brownback’s Lieutenant Governor just endorsed Orman — proving Orman won’t move the state beyond the failed Brownback experiment that bankrupted our schools and ruined our economy,” Kelly spokeswoman Johanna Warshaw said.

Kelly’s campaign said she is the only candidate in the race with a record of bringing together Republicans and Democrats – an implicit rebuke to Orman, who has promised to bring together a coalition of the Republicans and Democrats to win.

The Baccus endorsement offers opportunities to both Orman and Kelly, said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University. Kelly can try to tie Orman to Brownback, but Orman can use the endorsement to try to sway Colyer voters unhappy with Kobach, he said.

The Baccus defection makes the Republican display of unity immediately after Colyer’s concession look weak, Beatty said.

“It’s a crack in that unified wall and the question is: Does that keep cracking?” Beatty said.