All the news this week is about Kansas getting a new governor. But off to the side, Kansas Democrats have a new frontrunner in this year’s race for that office.
That leading contender? Laura Kelly, c’mon down.
The Topeka state senator has served in the Legislature since 2005. She’s not well-known in the Johnson-Wyandotte County area, but she deserves serious consideration.
Her bona fides: Even though she got in the race just two weeks before the end-of-year filing deadline, Kelly raised $155,691 in contributions. That trailed only Josh Svaty and his $192,545 among Democrats, and Svaty got into the race in May.
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The outpouring for Kelly is telling. So is the fact that her donors include former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius whose $2,000 contribution was the only donation she’s made to a gubernatorial candidate. In fact, the word is that much of the former Sebelius team is behind Kelly, which will be a big help with fundraising and organizing.
Until Kelly jumped in the race, becoming the first woman in a crowded field that now includes about 20 candidates across the political spectrum, Democrats were unsettled.
Their candidates include a trio of early favorites: Carl Brewer, former Wichita mayor; Svaty, a former state agriculture secretary who previously held a state representative seat in rural Kansas, and that’s saying something for a Democrat these days; and Jim Ward, the House minority leader with a reputation as a political brawler.
The field pre-Kelly was widely seen by many as solid, but unsatisfying — sort of like a quarter-pounder. Brewer can be impressive in spurts, but his rationale for running remains unconvincing. Svaty’s anti-abortion plank allowed him to win that state rep seat from the Ellsworth area, but it infuriates some members of the Democratic base. Planned Parenthood, for instance, has called Svaty an “extremist.”
Ward has ably carried the Democratic banner in Topeka, but some wonder if he’s gubernatorial material.
That question doesn’t stick to Kelly. She’s gubernatorial in the mold of former Gov. Bill Graves, meaning she’s calm, steady, smart. She’s earned her stripes as a persistent and effective opponent of Gov. Sam Brownback and has worked overtime to get more money to public schools. She’s fought to expand Medicaid and strengthen early childhood education. She advocates for higher education and highways, which have been robbed of tens of millions of dollars to pay for tax cuts.
“For too long, Kansans have been without a champion in the governor’s office — someone who will fight for them and their priorities,” Kelly said in her declaration statement.
She faces two major questions: Can she inspire fire and enthusiasm in an audience? Kelly, 67, has never run statewide, and she is known for thoughtfulness, not rhetorical flare. The other issue: her voting record on guns. Hailing from a district that extends from Topeka into rural Kansas, Kelly has backed gun rights. For a long time, she had NRA support.
But that ended after she voted in 2016 for an unsuccessful amendment that would have allowed state universities to ban concealed weapons.
“The guns-on-campus part of the bill went too far,” she told the Topeka Capital-Journal.
Her gun votes could pose the same problem as Svaty’s abortion votes. But for now, Kelly has emerged as the Democrat to beat.