After an intense one-on-one meeting with Kansas state Sen. Laura Kelly from Topeka, I think I may have just met a candidate for governor who could actually beat Secretary of State Kris Kobach — if he is the Republican nominee for governor — or any other GOP contender.
As the only female candidate for governor in either party, Kelly immediately stands out from the crowd.
But her gender is not the only factor that makes me think she could win the Democratic primary and have a real shot at winning the general election, whether she faces Kobach or the other high-profile Republican in the race, Gov. Jeff Colyer. Kelly has other important qualities, but let’s be honest. First and foremost, there seems to be a mood in the country, which feels like the “year of the woman,” that could help Kelly immensely.
I still expect Kobach to beat Colyer and all the other Republican candidates in the August primary election. I was ready to anoint Kobach governor because I believed he would trounce both the Democratic nominee and independent candidate Greg Orman. Now, not so fast. That was before Kelly filed in December at almost the last minute.
Kelly, 68, has served in the state Senate since 2004 and is the ranking Democrat on the influential Ways and Means Committee. She is highly respected on both sides of the aisle for her thoughtful, informed and moderate approach to issues.
Her budget-conscious fiscal positions, her strong advocacy for the Second Amendment and her progressive positions on social issues have allowed Kelly to consistently win in a Republican Senate district. She has drawn strong support from moderate Republicans and independents and has made a strong showing in rural areas, which are traditionally more conservative. Kelly just might be able to draw similarly broad support in a statewide race for governor, and that could preclude Orman from stealing many votes.
Kelly was cajoled into the race by several key Democratic leaders, including one of her strongest supporters, former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who apparently did not believe the other Democratic candidates in this race could ultimately win the governor’s seat. Sebelius, who was twice elected governor, can offer Kelly a strong campaign network of political veterans who know how to win in a Republican state.
Kelly exudes a soft-spoken stability, though she lacks charisma. Kelly did not wow me with her personality. But given the boisterous ways of President Donald Trump and the wildly controversial pronouncements of Kobach, her steady-as-she-goes demeanor may go over quite well by comparison. Her low-key approach also stands in sharp contrast to firebrand Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Ward of Wichita. Ward, the minority leader of the Kansas House, was favored by many, including me, to win the Democratic nomination. But that was before Kelly filed. Her entry completely changes the equation.
Kelly’s challenge, of course, is that few outside the Topeka area have heard of her. According to a recent poll, only 24 percent of Kansans say they recognize her name. Meanwhile, 85 percent of Kansans polled say they have heard of Kobach. But, at the same time, two out of every five view Kobach in a highly negative way.
Kelly has a strong fundraising track record, which will be especially critical for a Democrat reaching out well beyond her party base. She raised $155,000 from 439 donors in just 17 days between her late filing and the first campaign finance report. She is confident she can raise the approximately $5 million needed to gain name recognition and to deliver the message that she would be a moderate voice Kansans could embrace.
First, Kelly must prevail in the August Democratic primary. She is depending on her firm belief that Democrats ultimately will choose the candidate they think has the best chance of beating the Republican candidate, even if it is Kris Kobach.