There’s no sense in wasting a lot of ink or digital space on the imminent departure of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.
The governor has not been engaged in political activity for months. When the budget crisis reached a crescendo during the last session, Brownback called key leaders into his office and sort of said, “Do what you want. Goodbye.”
Brownback is history now, so the focus should be on what is to follow. Who will be the winners and losers from the early departure of the governor for an at-large ambassadorship appointment by President Donald Trump?
The answer should be clear. The winner is soon-to-be Gov. Jeff Colyer. The loser is Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Both are almost certain to face off in a GOP gubernatorial primary next August. But now Colyer can go toe-to-toe with Kobach.
There are at least six Republicans who have proclaimed or hinted that they will seek the Republican nomination for Kansas governor. That number is bound to grow. This could resemble the Republican primary for president, where the stage was filled with candidates. When so many are running, a candidate who garners only 25-30 percent can win. This outcome is even more likely when one candidate stands out as the true conservative, while the moderates split up the rest of the vote.
Until now, it looked like Kobach would emerge as the easy winner. He is a staunch conservative. He has the highest statewide name recognition. He knows how to make headlines. And he can be very charming — a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
But stop right there. The equation has changed dramatically with the lieutenant governor becoming the incumbent governor.
Colyer, a Johnson County plastic surgeon who is little known now, will become very well known during the next year as the presiding governor. As a true-red conservative, Colyer can challenge Kobach for the right-wing vote and right-wing money. Each is likely to promise to carry out the Brownback conservative agenda. That may sound like a losing formula, given Brownback’s unpopularity. But in a low-turnout Republican primary, the conservative will attract the most money and almost certainly will win the nomination, while moderates kill each other off.
When the general election rolls around in November, whether it’s Kobach or Colyer who wins the nomination, the Republican candidate predictably will move to the middle, finessing his stand on much of the Brownback agenda. But for now, with a primary looming, they must embrace it fiercely. They will call for reduced taxes, reduced spending, more abortion restrictions, cuts in services and a march toward zero for Kansas income taxes. That will earn each the praise of the right-wing organizations that fund these campaigns so generously.
I’m not saying Colyer can beat Kobach in the primary. Kobach still has the distinct advantage of the anti-immigration and anti-voter fraud niche he has carved out for himself. That has given Kobach national notoriety, which could add to his stature among Kansans. It also will likely earn Kobach an endorsement from his buddy, Trump, and perhaps presidential campaign visits to Kansas on Kobach’s behalf. Trump did win Kansas by a resounding 20 points against Hillary Clinton, so he likely would be a plus among Republicans.
But, at the very least, Colyer could give Kobach a run for his money. It may depend on how Colyer handles some of the sticky state issues, including school funding, and on whether he can display anything resembling the charisma that Kobach possesses in abundance.
It’s just a relief to know Kobach has a chance to be stopped by someone, anyone. Colyer is not my favorite among all likely Republican candidates, but if he can stop Kobach, I would knock on doors for him.