As the race for Kansas governor develops, Wichita has more than its share of candidates.
A half-dozen candidates and potential candidates have ties to Sedgwick County, easily exceeding numbers from previous races.
What the bevy of Wichita contenders means for the 2018 race isn’t entirely clear. Political experts and observers diverge on whether hailing from the state’s largest city will prove an asset or liability.
On the Republican side, businessman Wink Hartman and Ed O’Malley, president of the Wichita-based Kansas Leadership Center, are running. Senate President Susan Wagle and businessman and former state representative Mark Hutton have also expressed interest.
The Republican field has two declared candidates without significant Wichita ties: Kris Kobach and Jim Barnett.
Former state representative Josh Svaty, of Ellsworth, is the only non-Wichitan in the Democratic race at the moment.
Being from Wichita may prove helpful to candidates, said Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University.
Candidates may have a fundraising advantage because they can use existing connections in Wichita. Sedgwick County’s reputation statewide also isn’t as polarizing as places such as Johnson County, he said.
“I think it’s to the point somebody running for governor from Johnson County might actually lose votes because they’re from Johnson County,” Smith said.
But Ken Ciboski, a retired Wichita State University political science professor, says the opposite.
Wichita has a reputation for crime, Ciboski says, that may hurt how voters statewide view candidates from here. He also thinks the large number of Wichita candidates may reduce discussion of rural issues during the race.
Rep. Steven Johnson is a Republican from Assaria, a town of a few hundred people south of Salina. He dismissed concerns that rural issues could be pushed out.
“I don’t think it’s a risk for the rural areas if there’s a number (of candidates) from Wichita. There’s a number of opportunities for those of us in rural areas to step up if we think that’s needed or appropriate,” Johnson said.
Kansas Democrats typically don’t have contested primaries for governor. This is shaping up to be the first competitive primary in two decades.
“You have in the Democratic party in the state of Kansas a growing sense that the state of Kansas, despite being a predominantly rural state, does in fact have these urban centers, particularly Wichita, that are developing a distinct political consciousness that challenges a lot of the presumptions of the state Democratic party,” said Russell Fox, a political scientist at Friends University.
In some ways the Kansas race reflects what is happening among Democrats nationally, Fox said. In the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton embodied what Fox called a progressive, yet moderate “Democratic centrism.” Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, was much more progressive and “left-leaning,” he said.
Debates between those two camps are continuing to play out across the country, and may also be part of the Democratic primary race for Kansas governor.
“They are going to fight to win the pro-choice vote. They are going to fight to win the racial minority vote. They are going to fight to capture the kind of nascent, progressive electorate that is right here in Wichita,” Fox said of Brewer and Ward.
Brewer and Ward would potentially dominate the race in Wichita. Tom Witt, chair of the Kansas Democratic Party’s progressive caucus, predicted Svaty would struggle in Wichita because of his anti-abortion voting record.
The contest between Brewer and Ward would likely be driven by personality, he said.
“If Jim Ward gets in, I think the Wichita Democratic base – the activist community in Wichita – I think would be pretty divided,” Witt said.
Ultimately, factors other than geography are likely to be more important than where a candidate is from, Ciboski said.
“It’s probably going to come down to who has the largest following going into the race and positive name recognition,” Ciboski said.
And right now on the Republican side, no one beats Kobach in terms of name recognition.
The Kansas secretary of state has not only a following within the state, but also a national reputation for advocating for stringent enforcement of immigration law and voter identification laws.
Sedgwick County, as one of the state’s most populous counties, holds a large concentration of Republican voters. But Fox says Kobach shouldn’t be concerned about Wichita Republicans gobbling up vote share in the county – his focus will be broader than that.
“Kobach will run a national race no matter what he’s running for. Kobach is going to run against Nancy Pelosi no matter what he’s running for,” Fox said.
Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said before the filing deadline to run next year, a “winnowing” of candidates will occur. A possible field of a half-dozen candidates or more could ultimately be no more than three by the time active campaigning begins, he suggested.
“I think Sedgwick County will support, by and large, the more conservative candidate,” Huebert said.