The top Democrat in the Kansas House and one of Gov. Sam Brownback’s harshest critics launched a campaign for governor Saturday after months of speculation.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat known for fiery speeches, joins a crowded field of candidates seeking the Kansas governor’s mansion in 2018. Ward, an attorney, has gained notoriety as one of the most outspoken progressive voices in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
“I’m going to aggressively talk about what I believe the future of Kansas would be under a Ward administration moving forward. And I will punch back,” said Ward.
Despite his reputation as a bomb-thrower, Ward said that he wants to avoid a “constant barrage” of negativity. He said people were repulsed by that in the 2016 presidential election.
“And I think I have a huge, vast majority of Kansans that are on my side,” he said. “They’re really tired of politics always being about personal destruction and attack, and they really want people to talk about how you can solve problems that help their lives.”
This spring, House Democrats, under Ward’s direction, partnered with moderate Republicans to roll back much of Brownback’s signature 2012 tax cuts. They also helped get Medicaid expansion passed but were unable to overcome Brownback’s veto.
“The energy is moving forward, and this election is going to be about whether we continue to move forward, or do we maintain the Brownback experiment under a different name,” Ward said.
Kansas Democrats are poised to have their first primary since 1998.
Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and former state Secretary of Agriculture Josh Svaty launched their campaigns earlier this year. Two political newcomers, Arden Anderson, a doctor from Olathe, and Jack Bergeson, a high school student from Wichita, also are seeking the nomination.
Chris Reeves, a Democratic national committeeman for Kansas, said Ward’s big argument in the primary is that he has been on the ground in the Legislature fighting for Medicaid expansion and other policies.
“Ward is going to put out he’s been one of the most active on child abuse and prison safety, which he’s brought up in the statehouse for years,” Reeves said. So it’s not like a new game, it’s not as if he’s just adopting those issues now. People can go back and say, ‘That’s where he was.’ ”
Former state party chairman Lee Kinch is serving as Ward’s treasurer, signaling his support from important figures in the party’s base.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said Ward’s reputation as a progressive firebrand offers a contrast with Svaty and Brewer.
“Ward has the street fighter reputation, the person who takes jabs and doesn’t mind going on the attack,” Miller said.
“Kris Kobach can be beaten, but only with the right candidate who is a able to build coalitions,” said Ward, who has repeatedly clashed with Kobach on voting rights and has been an outspoken critic of Colyer’s pet program, KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid system.
Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said Ward has been controversial even within the Democratic Party. He said Republicans welcome his entry into the race.
“He’s got a long-term voting record that we believe is completely out of step with Kansas values,” Arnold said.
In 2007, Ward was pulled over in Topeka and arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. He declined to take a breath test. Ward said he made a mistake and deeply regretted it.
“As I told my district when it happened, it would never happen again. It hasn’t and nor will it,” Ward said.
Miller said there are pros and cons to Ward’s fiery approach.
He said many moderate Republicans, who could be the decisive voters in the 2018 election, have animosity toward Ward. That could prove problematic, even if Kobach — the most prominent Republican in the race — is the GOP nominee.
“There are some moderates I’ve talked to who really dislike Kris Kobach, and their sentiment has been that if the race is Kobach versus Ward, they’ll vote for Kobach because they dislike Ward that much,” Miller said.
Ward has repeatedly provoked the ire of GOP lawmakers, including this last session when he opposed a GOP-backed school finance plan on the grounds that it did not sufficiently increase school dollars.
In 2012, GOP lawmakers led an effort to censure Ward, alleging that he misled the House when he offered an amendment on a property tax relief bill that effectively switched the underlying Republican-backed idea with a Democratic-backed plan.
A House investigative panel later dismissed a complaint against him.
Miller said Democrats need to be aggressive if they’re going to sway voters in a Republican-leaning state.
“The challenge the Democrats have is they live in a state where most voters prefer the other brand. … And if most people prefer the other brand, the way that you get them to switch brands is being aggressive,” he said. “Vanilla doesn’t really convey that message well.”