Two Democratic icons — in a state that doesn’t have many — will be in opposition this year when Kansas Democrats hold their first primary for governor in two decades.
Former Govs. John Carlin and Kathleen Sebelius are the only two people alive who have won a race for governor in Kansas as a Democrat. And both of them did it twice in a state where Republicans now outnumber Democrats by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
Sebelius, who served from 2003 to 2009 before joining former President Barack Obama’s administration, helped recruit her longtime political ally and former next-door neighbor, state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat.
“I think I was one of a whole host of people who I would say for more than a year talked to her about 2018 being a uniquely interesting year for women to run,” Sebelius said in an interview this month.
Carlin, who served as governor from 1979 to 1987 after a stint as speaker of the Kansas House, has embraced Josh Svaty, a 38-year-old former state lawmaker who represented the same House district as Carlin did.
“I think he’s the strongest candidate because he’s a fresh face. He brings some new excitement that will energize younger voters, who need to play a significant role,” Carlin said in a phone call.
Democrats in Kansas usually form a united front. The split between the former governors is new in a state where intraparty fights are usually reserved for Republicans, said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University.
“It is natural that Sebelius is lined up with Kelly and Carlin with Svaty. … They both see parts of their background in those candidates,” Beatty said.
Sebelius said she and Kelly raised their kids together when they were neighbors in Topeka and that she first encouraged Kelly to run for the Legislature in the 1990s after years of political discussions.
Kelly followed her advice a decade later, winning a state Senate seat in 2004.
“She’s one of the most knowledgeable people on finances that we have in the Legislature,” Sebelius said, noting Kelly’s role as the ranking Democrat on the Senate budget committee.
Sebelius did not have a large presence on the campaign trail during the 2014 election, which came on the heels of her exit from the Obama administration, but she played an active role in successful campaigns to retain state Supreme Court justices and elect more moderates and Democrats to the Legislature.
Early signs suggest she’ll be strongly involved in Kelly’s campaign, which announced her endorsement ahead of the party’s annual convention a month ago in Topeka.
“I’m not going to run again for anything myself, but I certainly have no lack of interest in the future of Kansas. I intend to roll up my sleeves and do anything I can to be helpful,” Sebelius said.
The primary election will take place in August. This is the first contested primary Democrats have had since 1998.
Beatty said that Sebelius “is probably going to be more helpful in fundraising simply because she was in D.C. … and was in the fundraising game in Kansas more recently. Carlin’s going to be very helpful for that rural vote. He comes from that background, was a dairy farmer.”
Carlin’s support for Svaty, an Ellsworth farmer, has largely centered on his perceived appeal to rural voters. Carlin blames Democratic losses in recent statewide elections on an overemphasis on urban and suburban counties.
“His commitment to working the entirety of the state … is a big improvement for the Democratic Party,” said Carlin, who argues that a lack of outreach to rural voters cost Paul Davis the governor’s office in 2014 and hurt Democrats down ballot.
“We quit doing that, and the demise of our strength in the Legislature went with it. In the good old days … we elected Democrats in western Kansas,” said Carlin, who served as speaker for two years with a 65-seat Democratic majority in the House in the late 1970s.
Carlin said that Gov. Joan Finney, who served one term in the early 1990s and died in 2001, was the last Democrat to truly campaign in every corner of the state.
“There wasn’t a county where everybody didn’t know who she was,” he said.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who is also seeking the nomination, dismissed the importance of the former governors on the 2018 race.
“I think both Josh and Laura are making a mistake and using retreads of old-timers. Both respected people, but their times are past. And the politics of 2018 are much different than the politics of 1978 or 2002,” he said.
A poll paid for by Ward’s campaign found that 19 percent of likely Democratic voters preferred Kelly. Ward had support from 17 percent, which put him within the margin of error.
Svaty had support from 7 percent of voters in the poll, while 57 percent were undecided.
The poll from Virginia-based Expedition strategies was conducted March 5-8 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. It did not feature former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer as an option.
Kelly touted endorsements from Sebelius and other female leaders in a statement Friday commemorating the end of Women’s History Month. She expanded on the importance of Sebelius' support in an additional email.
"Kathleen Sebelius is a woman who has a long history of public service," Kelly said. "She worked tirelessly as governor to fund our schools, improve the lives of our families and invest in our state’s future. She knows exactly what it takes to be a good governor."
Kelly is one of only two women in the race for governor in a field of more than 20 men. The other is a Maryland high school student, Gabrielle Zwi, who can run because Kansas imposes no age or residency requirements to run for governor.
Svaty said Carlin has been a mentor throughout his career and that his advice has helped him build a stronger campaign.
"I have learned more from Governor Carlin's wisdom than what an early endorsement would have taught me, and am honored to have the support of someone smart enough to know that is what I needed if I wanted to be a successful candidate," Svaty said in an email.
Carlin joined Sebelius — along with two former GOP governors, Mike Hayden and Bill Graves — in campaigning to keep the Kansas Supreme Court justices in 2016.
Graves and Hayden have not given any indication they plan to get involved in the race for the GOP nomination, said Kelly Arnold, the state GOP chair.
Nor has former Gov. Sam Brownback, who left office in January to take a position as U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
“I just don’t see our former governor getting involved," Arnold said. "He is truly focused on his new role … and he’s going to probably let our primary voters decide who we want to support for a nominee.”
The U.S. State Department would not immediately comment on whether Brownback would back his former lieutenant, Gov. Jeff Colyer, or any other GOP candidate.
Brownback left office as one of the least popular governors in the nation, but he was a prolific fundraiser and remains influential in GOP circles.
Beatty said that could help steer donors and interest groups toward Colyer over Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. “But it’s going to have to be a behind-the-scenes effort,” he said.
Beatty said endorsements from Graves or Hayden, both moderates, would probably have a limited impact in the race for the GOP nomination.
But he said their support could be extremely helpful to a Democratic nominee in the general election as a way to help build support of moderate Republicans in what likely will be a three-way race with the Republican and independent Greg Orman.