Government & Politics

Sen. Laura Kelly running for Kansas governor, becoming first woman in race

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, on Friday entered the race for governor.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, on Friday entered the race for governor.

A leading Kansas Democrat on Friday became the first woman to enter the 2018 governor’s race, jolting the chase to lead a state that voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said in a statement that “for too long, Kansans have been without a champion in the governor’s office, someone who will fight for them and their priorities.”

Kelly’s entrance adds intrigue to the Democratic primary in a pivotal election year for the party. House Minority Leader Jim Ward, former state Agriculture Secretary Josh Svaty and former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer earlier announced campaigns.

On the Republican side, the crowded field includes Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a vocal Trump supporter, and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer. Independent Greg Orman has also taken major steps towards running for governor in recent days.

Svaty’s campaign issued a statement that called him “the only Democrat that can win votes in every corner of this state.”

“This doesn’t change the ultimate objective for Kansas Democrats, which is to identify the best nominee who can defeat Kris Kobach next November,” Svaty said.

Kelly, 67, has served in the Kansas Senate since 2005, becoming one of the leading Democrats in the Senate on a range of issues. She has been a vocal critic of Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration, often highlighting issues in health care, prisons and child welfare.

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Kelly has a proven fundraising ability, said Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas. And although she is entering the race later than many other candidates, it’s not too late, he said.

She also may have advantages as the sole woman, Miller said.

“She stands out, that contrast from the field, and it’s not like she’s a token woman,” he said. “She’s extremely credible.”

Normally a campaign announcement by a state senator who hasn’t previously run for statewide office may not be that big a deal, said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political science professor.

But in Kelly’s case, her connection to former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius is key, Beatty said. They have been friends for many years.

“As everybody who knows anything about Kansas history knows, Kathleen Sebelius knew how to win as a Democrat in a Republican state,” he said. “...This makes Kelly a formidable candidate immediately.”

The Kobach and Colyer campaigns did not immediately comment on Kelly’s entrance into the race.

Ward also did not immediately respond to a call from The Star.

The Kansas governor’s race has already begun to gain national attention, in large part because of Kobach.

Late last month, Kobach held a campaign fundraiser with Donald Trump Jr. in Overland Park. Kobach has advised President Trump in the past and has tied himself closely to the GOP leader.

In the statement announcing her campaign, Kelly said she’s “been on the front lines of the fight to get more resources into public school classrooms,” and talked about her charge to expand Medicaid in Kansas.

“But this election is not just about what each candidate is willing to fight for. It’s also a question of who they’re willing to fight alongside,” Kelly said. “Bitter partisanship doesn’t balance the budget. It doesn’t create jobs. And it doesn’t grow our economy. We need balance in government someone who will work as hard as possible to build consensus among competing interests, no matter what the dividing lines may be.”

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican running for Congress in the 2nd District, said he thought Kelly would make a poor governor and compared her disapprovingly to Sebelius.

“Well, the Democrats gotta find somebody,” he said.

Democrats in the state Senate lauded Kelly.

Sen. Pat Pettey, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, said Kelly has been a mentor to her and complimented her knowledge of state government.

“I think she’d be a great governor,” Pettey said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, compared Kelly favorably to Sebelius, though he noted he was neutral in the primary at this point.

“It’s a classic case of the Republicans having a very controversial nominee versus a moderate Democrat who will appeal to a broad base of people,” Hensley said. “That’s what happened when Kathleen got elected, and I think history could very well repeat itself.”

The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw