President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint Gov. Sam Brownback to a post in his administration could impact whether one of the president’s closest allies in Kansas can capture the Republican nomination for governor next year.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, an Overland Park plastic surgeon, will be elevated to governor if Brownback is confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, which would enable Colyer to campaign as a sitting governor if he decides to enter the 2018 race.
“He’s kind of a presence in the race without actually announcing,” Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said about Colyer.
Barker said that whenever Colyer discusses the 2018 race he “always speaks conditionally, like, ‘If I were to run.’ ” Barker said the uncertainty about whether Colyer will enter the race could have a “chilling effect” on Republican donors trying to determine which candidate to back.
“He’ll have to distinguish himself that he’s not Brownback’s last year. He’s the Colyer administration,” Barker said, noting that Colyer is already looking at making staff changes in Topeka. “He’s a smart guy. He knows that.”
In his only statement since Brownback’s appointment was announced, Colyer said Friday he looks forward to “working with Kansans from across the state, listening to their vision for the future, as together we move toward a better tomorrow for the place that we love.” He did not say whether he planned to enter the 2018 race.
Brownback was the most dominant political force in Kansas Republican politics since Bob Dole gave up his U.S. Senate seat in 1996. His departure creates a question about who will emerge as the face of the party, Barker said.
“Brownback is one of only two people who has been a congressman, a senator and a governor. Five statewide elections at the top level. Almost nobody’s done that,” he said. “And in 2010 when the wave came in, he was the leader … We don’t have that anymore, and that’s going to be a problem for me.”
The state’s Democrats faced a similar situation eight years ago when President Barack Obama tapped Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to serve in his cabinet. Gov. Mark Parkinson, who succeeded Sebelius, ultimately declined to enter the 2010 race, helping assure an easy victory for Brownback in the general election. The party has struggled to win statewide races since that time.
Kobach called Brownback’s departure “a passing of a torch to another generation.”
Kobach, a fixture on cable news, has a national profile and a better developed brand than Colyer, according to Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas.
Miller said the average Kansas voter probably wouldn’t recognize Colyer’s name “if you stuck it in front of him,” but that once he becomes governor he’ll have an opportunity to establish himself as a viable candidate.
“Whenever he takes over the governorship, what he does in that limited amount of time before any primary matters,” he said. Colyer would have one legislative session before the August Republican primary next year.
David Kensinger, who managed Brownback’s 2010 campaign, pointed to Colyer’s role in transforming the state’s Medicaid system into a privatized system, saving the state millions of tax dollars each year.
“That’s a scale of achievement that so far no other candidate in the race can point to,” Kensinger said.
He added that Colyer’s first few months in office would give him a chance to establish himself against other options. “The best way to demonstrate you can be a good governor is to be a good governor,” he said.
Democrats have already sought to define Colyer by his association with Brownback before he takes the oath of office as governor. The Democratic Governors Association blasted the Johnson County Republican as Brownback’s “single biggest cheerleader” in a news release Thursday.
Kobach, a fellow Republican, also cast doubt on the idea that Colyer will be able to distinguish himself from Brownback.
“Whether Jeff were in the governor’s seat or in the lieutenant governor’s seat it doesn’t fundamentally change the fact that he has been Gov. Brownback’s right hand man, so he would be the candidate most closely associated with Brownback for better or for worse,” Kobach said.
Only 25 percent of Kansans approve of Brownback’s job performance, according to a June poll from Morning Consult.
Kobach has said that ending the “culture of corruption” is one of his biggest priorities.
“It wasn’t something that the Brownback administration attempted to correct. I guess I’d put it that way,” Kobach said when asked if the Brownback administration had contributed to that culture.
The link to Brownback could hurt Colyer’s candidacy with the party’s moderate faction even if he does try to shift to the political center.
“I can’t think of one moderate vote he would get. Not when there are moderate options on the table,” said Stephanie Sharp, a former state lawmaker and Lenexa-based political strategist who works with moderate candidates.
“Even if he does offer some olive branches, they’re not going to trust that they’re not new olive branches that bend and twist. It won’t be authentic because you’ve latched on and flown the flag for seven years,” she said of moderate voters.
The race already includes two moderate Republican candidates: former state Rep. Ed O’Malley and former state Sen. Jim Barnett, the party’s unsuccessful 2006 nominee. And in addition to Kobach, Wichita oil magnate Wink Hartman has been courting conservatives.
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said that a sitting governor running for election during his first year in office would be “uncharted territory” for the state of Kansas.
“If Colyer enters, it’s the most interesting gubernatorial primary in the modern era,” Beatty said. He predicted that Colyer could be competitive in a primary if he’s able to unite Brownback’s old base behind him.
Nationwide, governors who come into office because their predecessor died or left office have a 63 percent success rate in election since World War II, according to University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Beatty predicted that Kobach’s campaign will echo Trump’s presidential campaign and that he’ll attack Colyer over a federal investigation into loans he made to Brownback’s 2014 campaign, which never resulted in any charges.
“It could be vicious. Trump was never hesitant in attacking Hillary Clinton for just being investigated, so do we really think Kobach will hesitate to go after Colyer for being investigated?” Beatty said. “I’m leaning toward he’d (Kobach would) use it, so it’s a vulnerability for Colyer. No question.”
Barnett said that he believes Kobach and Colyer will be fighting over the same voters because they have similar ideologies.
Hartman said in an email that the possibility of Colyer’s candidacy has strengthened his resolve. “The same people that created the mess in Topeka won’t fix it,” he said.
Asked about how a candidate wins in such a crowded field, Kensinger laughed. “With a plurality,” he said.
He also said that Colyer’s background as someone who grew up in western Kansas and then started a successful medical practice in Johnson County would give him broad geographic appeal.
“It’s a guy who can speak to the concerns of the whole state, urban and rural,” he said.
Sharp, who supports O’Malley, said that Colyer will pull votes from Kobach, but she doesn’t think that will be enough to defeat the secretary of state as long as the moderate vote is split between multiple moderates.
“I don’t want Kris Kobach to be our next governor, and it terrifies me right now. We have to beat Kris Kobach in the primary. That’s the only way he doesn’t become the next governor,” she said.