Elections

If it wasn’t for those teens running in the governor’s race, would we be in this mess?

Meet the teen candidates running for governor of Kansas

The four teen-age Kansas gubernatorial hopefuls were the center of attention during a 2018 campaign forum in the Lawrence Free State High School gym.
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The four teen-age Kansas gubernatorial hopefuls were the center of attention during a 2018 campaign forum in the Lawrence Free State High School gym.

Who’d have thought that a couple of high school kids running for office on a lark could wind up maybe making the difference in whether the governor keeps his job or not?

But in a Republican primary where Gov. Jeff Colyer trails Secretary of State Kris Kobach by a mere 191 votes, a pair of 17-year-old candidates won a combined 3,758 votes.

“In a normal election, we would not say 3,700 votes was a substantive chunk,” said Russell Fox, professor of political science at Friends University in Wichita. “But under the election results that we actually have, 3,700 votes is more than enough to make a huge difference.”

At the end of the regular vote counting, Kobach has 126,257 votes to Colyer’s 126,066.

Tyler Ruzich, 17, of Prairie Village won the high school heat race with 2,217 votes in Tuesday’s election. Joseph Tutera Jr. of Overland Park, also 17, received 1,541 votes.

Tutera said he has no regrets. On the day after the election, he said, “It’s the first time in eight months I’m bummed out.

“It was such a great election,” he said. “I had a lot of fun doing it and met a lot of cool people. I’m just sad it’s over.”

He said he talked to Ruzich on Wednesday and they were both astonished at the number of votes they pulled.

“It’s crazy,” Tutera said. “If I hadn’t run or Tyler hadn’t run, that could have been the difference between who gets elected. It’s very weird to think about..”

They came in last and next to last in a field of seven candidates including the governor, the secretary of state and the state insurance commissioner.

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The teens found their way onto the ballot through a loophole in a state law that didn’t set a minimum age to run for office. So they could run, even though they weren’t old enough to vote.

The national media treated them mostly as a novelty act — another Kansas oddity to fill out a newscast. And if the election wasn’t so close, it would have stayed that way, Fox said.

“(The media) would maybe write some nice thing about how ‘Hey, this high school kid with no experience and no money actually persuaded 2,000 people to vote for him. That’s kind of neat,’” Fox said.

He said unusual candidacies are common in American elections.

“When you have a free society where people can involve themselves in the political process, they’re going to find odd ways to do that,” he said. “The kids stand out for a variety of reasons, but they’re not alone.”

It seldom makes any difference.

On the Democratic ballot, 17-year-old high school candidate Jack Bergeson got 3,850 votes — more than both the Republican high-school students together.

But it didn’t change a thing, because state Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, ran away from the field

Of course, no one knows whether the Republican teens’ absence from the ballot would have changed the outcome of the primary, said Robert Beatty, professor of political science at Washburn University in Topeka.

There’s simply no way of knowing whether their voters would have gone to Kobach, Colyer or someone else — or even voted at all, he said.

But he said it was significant that the Republican Party took it seriously enough to essentially ban the high school kids from candidate debates.

“They understood that they could steal some votes, and that’s exactly what happened,” Beatty said.

The state government also acted to make sure this was the last time that high school candidates would be allowed to challenge their elders at the ballot box.

The Legislature passed a law in May setting the minimum age to run for governor at 25 and 18 to run for any other state office.

“So never again will a high-school teenager be able to spoil a sitting governor’s election in that fashion,” Beatty said.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

HB 2539 would set rules for future, not present, candidates for high office in Kansas.

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