Government & Politics

Kansas Democrats poised for primary after Josh Svaty enters race

Josh Svaty, an Ellsworth Democrat, spent seven years in the Kansas House and served as state secretary of agriculture under Gov. Mark Parkinson.
Josh Svaty, an Ellsworth Democrat, spent seven years in the Kansas House and served as state secretary of agriculture under Gov. Mark Parkinson.

Kansas Democrats will have a primary for governor for the first time in nearly two decades after Josh Svaty announced his candidacy Tuesday.

Svaty, an Ellsworth Democrat, spent seven years in the Kansas House and served as state secretary of agriculture under Gov. Mark Parkinson.

He also spent about three years working for the Environmental Protection Agency during President Barack Obama’s administration, serving as a conduit between the federal agency and agricultural groups in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa.

Svaty, who currently runs a family farm, kicked off his campaign for governor with an event in his hometown of Ellsworth, a central Kansas community with a population of about 3,100.

“A lot of people would say it doesn’t seem like the most attractive job right now,” Svaty, 37, said in a phone call, pointing to the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis. “But most of us who love Kansas know that if ever there was a time to step up, now is the time.”

Svaty’s candidacy for the 2018 race has been expected for months. He joins former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer in seeking the office on the Democratic side, but Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, is also weighing a run and could make a decision around the time Kansas wraps up its legislative session.

Kansas Democrats have not had a gubernatorial primary since 1998, when state Rep. Tom Sawyer easily defeated anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps before going on to lose to Republican Gov. Bill Graves. The party has not had a competitive primary since 1990, when state Treasurer Joan Finney upset former Gov. John Carlin on her way to the governor’s office.

“I think it’s healthy for the party. I think it will be very good for the Democrats,” Svaty said, contending that the primary would test the candidates’ viability for the November election.

Brewer said in an email that his “focus at this time is to reach out to as many Kansans as possible. During the next several months, our campaign will travel to every corner of the state, listening to the concerns of Kansans and offering new leadership to get our great state back on track.”

Ward declined to comment on Svaty’s announcement.

Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist at Fort Hays State University, said that primaries can also carry a risk because they deplete a candidate’s funding before the general election, and “you’ll have an airing of dirty laundry.”

The GOP race will also feature multiple candidates. Wichita oil magnate Wink Hartman and former state Rep. Ed O’Malley have both launched campaigns, but other candidates, including Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, are also expected to emerge in the coming weeks.

In the Democratic primary, Svaty will likely face questions about his anti-abortion voting record as a member of the Kansas House. Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes released a statement voicing strong opposition to his candidacy within about an hour of his announcement.

“My voting record is what it is,” Svaty said. “And it reflects the deep respect and affection I have for the 108th district, which is an overwhelmingly pro-life district. … Like many Kansans, I believe I am right down the middle on this issue.”

Svaty’s wife, Kimberly Svaty, works as a lobbyist for groups that represent the wind energy industry, the horse track racing industry and for the city of Wichita.

She said if her husband is elected governor, she may have to shift away from doing lobbying work.

“I’m not interested in doing anything that would raise any eyebrows,” she said, explaining that a large portion of her business, Gencur Svaty Public Affairs, has nothing to do with lobbying.

The couple have been married for 10 years and have three children — with a fourth expected in October.

Josh Svaty said Gov. Sam Brownback’s “emphasis on a tax policy with dubious benefits” is not the best way to attract people to the state. He pointed to investment in schools as the best way to attract young families to Kansas.

“I think sometimes we lose sight of the fact that quality of life matters,” he said.

Jonathan Shorman of The Wichita Eagle contributed to this report.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3