Decades ago, legendary Kansas newspaper publisher William Allen White asked the famous question: “What’s the matter with Kansas?” As Kansans sort through the candidates for governor on the 2018 ballot, the question now is “Who is Kansas?”
The 2018 election year presents an unprecedented smorgasbord of political fodder, highlighted by a governor’s race that spans the spectrum of civic curiosity.
Next year, Kansans will be challenged to say who they are, and what they believe about government’s role in their day-to-day lives. One thing is certain: The political identity of Kansas is no knee-jerk assumption.
Next August, primary election voters will pick a Democrat and Republican to face off in the November general election, ending two terms of Sam Brownback, perhaps the most unpopular governor in the state’s history.
Democrats will pick from a field of like-minded candidates, all of whom despise the Brownback agenda and pledge support for schools, social services and everything else Brownback has damaged in his inglorious tenure. Personality more than politics will define the winner among leading candidates Carl Brewer, Jim Ward and Josh Svaty.
Different on the GOP side. WAY different. Never in history have so many filed for office from so many diverse perspectives. The field ranges from the far right rantings of Secretary of State Kris Kobach to the touchy-feely kumbaya candidacy of Ed O’Malley, the most moderate (liberal to some) of the field.
In the middle is a tantalizing array of alternatives.
Wink Hartman is an angry rich man from Wichita who says he can fix everything. He has money and no political resume of note.
Lt. Governor (and soon to be interim governor when Brownback flees to Washington, D.C.) Jeff Colyer wants to be the establishment GOP candidate, but must cleanse himself of the stink of the Brownback administration.
Insurance commissioner Ken Selzer has filed, but he isn’t on anybody’s watch list.
Physician Jim Barnett, a former state senator and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate in 2006, is a nice guy who may well finish where nice guys finish. He is smart, soft-spoken, savvy, but unlikely to rise above a contentious field of political carnivores.
Then there is Mark Hutton, Wichita general contractor and state representative, who will try to present himself as the adult in the room. Statehouse media grew to respect Hutton for making the first move away from the Brownback tax plan that spared doctors from paying income tax but shifted the burden to their receptionists.
Hutton is a wild card. His challenge is to define himself as the best common-sense administrator in the field. Like the others, he just needs to carve out a fraction of the Republican turnout in August to win the GOP nomination.
In their hearts, Democrats hope for Kobach to survive, giving them a “good versus evil” theme for the general election. If the winner is a more moderate Republican, the Democrat will have much greater difficulty distinguishing himself as a clear alternative.
All that said, the final word goes to Kansas voters. They will define the state’s future in a fashion not seen in recent times. They will pick a Democrat who looks like the other Democrats. But on the GOP side, it is guaranteed that the winner will be starkly different from the losers. It is a defining moment for Kansas Republicans, with huge implications for the state’s future.
The wide range of candidates means you can’t count anybody out, or anoint anyone as the prohibitive favorite. It is a fascinating scenario that will only get more interesting with each passing day.
Dale Goter is a media consultant, former journalist and city of Wichita lobbyist.