Government & Politics

Kansas Democrats prepare for first primary for governor in this millennium

Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita is weighing a run in the gubernatorial race.
Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita is weighing a run in the gubernatorial race. The Wichita Eagle

After nearly two decades without a primary, Kansas Democrats appear poised for a three-way race for governor next year.

Former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, 60, declared his candidacy in February, but two more potential candidates have reached out to former Democratic Gov. John Carlin in recent months and are likely to announce campaigns in the near future.

Carlin said he had a visit from Brewer in January, but he has also had discussions in recent weeks with Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, and former Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Josh Svaty, who hails from Ellsworth.

“There’ll be a lot of activity, and it’ll get really open and competitive pretty soon,” said Carlin, who served as the state’s governor from 1979 to 1987 and played an active role in campaigns that led to Democrats and moderate Republicans picking up seats in the Legislature in November.

Svaty, 37, has previously hinted at his interest in the office, but Ward, 59, spoke publicly about the possibility of a run for the first time Friday.

“Serious people have talked to me about the governor’s race, but right now my focus is getting the heavy lifting of the Legislature done. After we get done with the legislative session, we will sit down and look at this,” said Ward, who has gained a reputation in the Legislature as one of Gov. Sam Brownback’s fiercest critics.

Asked what the phrase “serious people” meant and whether it referred to party leaders or donors, Ward replied, “I’ve heard from all of the above. I’ve heard from Republicans. I’ve heard from a lot of different people that I consider serious that this is something that I should look at.”

Ward said the requests for him to enter the race have increased in the “last month or so.” Speaking more broadly, he said he anticipated the party would have a competitive primary.

The party has not had a gubernatorial primary since 1998 when state Rep. Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, easily defeated anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps. Sawyer later lost by a large margin to incumbent Republican Gov. Bill Graves in the general election.

The state’s last elected Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius, faced no primary opponent during her two successful campaigns for governor, and the party’s nominees in the past two elections each ran unopposed.

Carlin, who won two terms as governor, faced two primary opponents in his first run and said the experience helped him gain name recognition ahead of the general election.

“Let’s face it. I was unknown, and the primary had to help me some. … Just getting around and being in the news and being part of a competitive race had to help me,” he said.

All three Democratic candidates will have to build statewide name recognition to have any hope of capturing the governor’s office, according to Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University.

“Jim Ward probably has the best statewide name recognition of the three, but I would say it’s still not that great,” he said.

Last week, the party’s 2014 nominee, Paul Davis, announced that he was exploring a run in the state’s 2nd Congressional District rather than a second run at the governor’s office after narrowly losing to Brownback three years ago.

Davis, a Lawrence attorney and former lawmaker, had been seen as a front-runner for the governor’s race. Carlin said Davis’ announcement “kind of clears the field” and “makes it easier for other candidates to move forward.”

Brewer, who would make history as Kansas’ first African-American governor, said his “focus is going out and connecting with individuals in every corner in Kansas” when asked about the possibility of a primary last week. His campaign said it had nothing to add to that statement Friday.

Svaty has hinted at a possible run for months. “Yes, I’m looking at it,” Svaty said Thursday. “There’s clearly a need of leadership in the state of Kansas on a host of issues.”

Svaty previously served in the Legislature and worked as a senior adviser for the Environmental Protection Agency. He currently runs a family farm in central Kansas.

Smith said Svaty could bring youthful charisma to the race.

“People talk about him like he’s almost like this Camelot-type figure, Jack Kennedy or something,” Smith said.

Tom Witt, a Wichita activist who serves on the Kansas Democratic Party’s executive committee, said the “three men really run the spectrum of Democratic thought in Kansas.”

Svaty has a mix of federal and state experience, while Brewer’s experience has been primarily at the local level. Ward has nearly two decades of legislative experience and previously served as an assistant district attorney in Sedgwick County.

Witt noted Svaty’s anti-abortion voting record as a member of the Legislature. Ward has been a staunch supporter of abortion rights, while Brewer did not have to delve into social issues much as a mayor, Witt said.

“They’re different enough that Kansas Democrats are going to have real choices next year in August when we vote in the primary, and that’s unusual for us,” he said.

Carlin called Ward “a serious candidate who would look at the opportunity as one to really help the state” and said he’s gotten to know him better over the last year through their work on legislative races.

“I’ve of course known Josh much longer,” Carlin said, noting that Svaty represented his old district in the Legislature during the 2000s.

“He’s got the agricultural background. He’s been an executive. He’s got the experience. He’s very well-qualified. There’s no question about it,” he said.

Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist at Fort Hays State University, said that the maneuvering of multiple candidates is a sign of Democrats’ chances in 2018.

“If this were a no-hoper for Democrats, no one would be lining up,” he said.

The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which tracks gubernatorial races, said Thursday that “Kansas seems like the best opportunity for Democrats to pull a surprising upset” among red states holding primaries in 2018. The center cited Brownback’s unpopularity as a key reason.

On the Republican side, Wichita oil magnate Wink Hartman and former state Rep. Ed O’Malley have each formed campaign committees, but other prominent Republicans are also weighing runs, including U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, an Overland Park Republican.

“There’s a lot of speculation about (Lt. Gov. Jeff) Colyer, (Kansas Secretary of State Kris) Kobach and Yoder,” said Clay Barker, the Kansas Republican Party’s executive director. “Some people think they’re all waiting to see who goes first after session.”

Carlin said that he expected Svaty to make an official announcement in the Democratic race before Ward, who will return to Topeka in May for the end of the legislative session.

“It would be awkward for Ward to do anything now. … He’s got to focus on his job. He’s a key leader in the Legislature, and what they do or don’t do will impact 2018,” Carlin said. “He’s going to be tied up in the month of May.”

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3