Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer will likely move into the governor’s mansion in Topeka later this year, but he doesn’t want to move out anytime soon after that.
The Johnson County plastic surgeon announced Tuesday that he is “fully committed to doing the work necessary to win the 2018 race for Governor” and has officially formed a campaign committee, the first step toward running for the office.
Colyer joins a crowded Republican field that already includes Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, among others, but he’ll be able to campaign as a sitting governor if the U.S. Senate confirms Gov. Sam Brownback’s nomination as the next ambassador at-large for international religious freedom.
Colyer, who talked to reporters Tuesday morning, refused then to answer a question about whether he might run for governor. His office announced his candidacy roughly an hour later.
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His imminent rise to the governor’s office comes on the heels of a legislative session that saw intense conflict between that office and the Legislature over taxes, Medicaid and other issues.
Colyer, who was one of the main architects of the state’s privatized Medicaid system, shot down the possibility of Medicaid expansion Tuesday while talking to reporters.
“We need to have Kansas solutions for Kansas, not Obamacare solutions,” he said, predicting that congressional Republicans will take another run at repealing the Affordable Care Act after an effort fizzled in the U.S. Senate last month.
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said one challenge for Colyer will be to distinguish himself from Brownback once he officially takes the reins of state government ahead of next year’s primary. Brownback has suffered from low approval ratings in recent years, and many of his closest allies in the Legislature lost their seats in 2016.
“Does Jeff Colyer make a huge break from Sam Brownback? And if he does, does that overcome his strong association with Brownback? And is it possible to do that as the former lieutenant governor? Obviously, at the national stage, vice presidents have struggled with this,” Beatty said.
Kobach said in an email that “Topeka needs a change of direction. Not more of the same.”
In addition to Colyer and Kobach, the GOP field also includes Kansas Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer; former state Sen. Jim Barnett, the party’s 2006 nominee; Wichita oil magnate Wink Hartman; and former state Rep. Ed O’Malley.
“With Kobach in the race, it’s always going to be a show. But if you look at these candidates — Republican voters have again one of the strongest fields that they’ve ever had,” Beatty said.
He said with so many well-known candidates, fundraising could be the difference.
“If you’re a Republican donor, I’d advise you to go on vacation for a little while. … Your phone is already ringing,” Beatty said. “They’re going to need at least a million dollars apiece, and they’re going to want a lot more.”
Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University, said Colyer has shown that he’s a good fundraiser but that he would likely have to face the legacy of “the Brownback/Colyer record” if he made it to the general election.
“Savvy Republicans have got to be aware of the fact that Colyer would probably be the easiest candidate for the Democrats to run against,” Smith said.
Kansas Democratic chairman John Gibson hinted at the party’s strategy in an email sent out after Colyer’s announcement.
“If there’s one thing that unites all Kansans, it’s that there’s no appetite for a third Brownback term. Voters aren’t going to entrust the job of rebuilding the state to the very same person who has spent the past seven years tearing it down,” Gibson said.
Beatty predicted that Colyer could face scrutiny about a federal investigation into loans he made to Brownback’s re-election in 2014. Colyer made a series of $500,000 loans to the campaign, and the campaign’s quick repayment of those loans drew scrutiny. Colyer has refused to give any more details about the loans or the investigation, which concluded in 2015 without any charges.
State Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican and outspoken moderate, said that if Colyer wants to remain governor past January 2019, he needs to show a willingness to compromise and change course from Brownback’s vision. She said Colyer should support legislation that would remove guns from university campuses and if he’s not willing to expand Medicaid, he needs to offer an alternative to provide health care for uninsured Kansans.
“I know he’s adamantly against it, but again the people of the state want their citizens covered. So if he isn’t going to expand, he needs to figure out a solution to care for those people,” Bollier said. “He has been Sam Brownback’s right-hand man, and Sam Brownback has been the least popular governor. … That ought to tell him something.”
Colyer told reporters that Kansas needs to focus on growing the economy.
“The unemployment rate may be 3.7 (percent), but it doesn’t feel like it,” he said. “I’m listening to people, and what they’re telling me is, ‘Where are we going to be in a few years, where are we going to be in four or five years? This is where our kids’ future is.’ And that’s what I’m really passionate about is, I want our future here in Kansas.”
Colyer’s campaign announcement comes four days after The Star reported that a Kansas Department of Corrections official had advised colleagues to downplay the possibility of a special session to deal with problems in the state’s prisons to avoid political fallout for Colyer.
“That gets very hairy and puts the gov office in a tight spot. Especially if Coyler takes office. His first act as gov would be to reconvene the legislature, where a tax increase would almost certainly be proposed, which Coyler hates,” Jimmy Caprio, the agency’s legislative liaison wrote in the email, which he then mistakenly sent to a Star reporter.
Shortly after The Star’s story was published, the Brownback administration released a statement saying Caprio was no longer with the department.
“I was very disappointed that somebody had written that,” Colyer said Tuesday when asked about Caprio’s email. “That does not reflect my view. There’s one governor at a time. We don’t do things for political reasons.”