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Kirk Seminoff: Crowded GOP gubernatorial field has candidates looking for an edge

The Kansas Statehouse.
The Kansas Statehouse. File photo

Five of the nine announced candidates for the 2018 Republican nomination for governor are running with a message of getting Kansas politics back to normal.

Voters have 10 months to sort them out.

All five likely won’t get to the primary finish line. One or two, maybe more, will realize they aren’t gaining the traction needed to stay among the leaders, even in the moderation lane.

The primary lanes are clear. Nationally known Kris Kobach has his. Lieutenant governor Jeff Colyer, soon to be governor when Sam Brownback becomes a U.S. ambassador, will have his own lane as the incumbent. Two teenagers occupy the lane that reminds lawmakers to introduce legislation next session to put parameters on who can be governor.

That leaves Jim Barnett, Wink Hartman, Mark Hutton, Ed O’Malley and Ken Selzer. All figure to be solid candidates, all looking for notice as the campaign gets into the next gear.

There are similarities between this race and the 2016 GOP presidential primary, where Donald Trump turned away 16 opponents en route to the nomination. If only two or three challengers faced Trump from the start, would the president have had so much early success?

The Kansas GOP could go that way next year, without the months of primaries. Kobach, polarizing because of his anti-immigration stance and making Kansas one of the toughest states in which to register to vote, figures to have a firm base no matter the opponents.

It’s how the other votes are split.

Moderation has been the hallmark of Kansas politics for generations, at least until Brownback’s 2010 victory. Governors, both Republican and Democrat, worked from the middle for decades.

Brownback’s conservative policies dominated the early part of the decade, until more moderate Republicans and some Democrats won 2016 statehouse elections to move the Legislature closer to where it had been before 2010.

“So this election is, ‘Do the voters want to stay with (Brownback’s policies) or do they want to return to normalcy?’ ” said Bob Beatty, professor of political science at Washburn University.

Colyer’s time as governor will be an indicator whether he’ll embrace normalcy. He has yet to talk priorities for when he takes over, but one decision will be how much he owns his time as Brownback’s lieutenant governor and how much he distances himself from the tax cuts – without spending cuts – that crippled the state.

Colyer and Kobach are in it for the long haul. Who joins them makes it an unpredictable primary.

Barnett, an Emporia doctor, has name recognition, though it’s for a 2006 gubernatorial loss to Kathleen Sebelius. He was a state senator for 10 years.

Selzer, the state’s insurance commissioner, has the advantage of being in office while running, which helps name recognition. Insurance commissioner isn’t as high profile a role as governor or secretary of state, but Sebelius won from the office in 2002.

Hutton, a Wichitan who founded a construction company, has a record of moving away from Brownback. In the Kansas House, he was one of the first lawmakers to rally against Brownback’s zero tax rate for limited liability companies.

O’Malley, president of Wichita’s Kansas Leadership Center, is seen as a centrist. He is a former House member from Johnson County.

Hartman, a Wichita businessman, can run as the outsider. He hasn’t held political office but lost in the 2010 congressional GOP 4th District primary to Mike Pompeo.

Beatty thinks it may be the most interesting GOP primary Kansas has seen. Seven viable candidates, all of whom have held office or run before, plus the national name of Kobach and a soon-to-be governor getting a test drive in the job.

The others look for the spotlight.

“They all want to get the state away from controversy,” Beatty said. “Make Kansas better without all the fireworks.”

Kirk Seminoff: 316-268-6278, @kseminoff