Josh Svaty stands near the Missouri River and waits for a beer as people in tutus caked in glitter run by him wearing rainbow flags like capes, superheroes of the social moment on this Saturday afternoon.
Svaty, 38, knows he’s kind of winging it.
He’s a Democrat running for governor of Kansas, standing on the other side of the state line in Kansas City, Mo., apart from a crowd of revelers at a gay pride festival roughly two months ahead of the most important primary election of his life, the election that may decide whether the old guard still rules the Kansas Democratic Party or youth is taking over.
As he makes the rounds at Kansas City PrideFest, Svaty wears an orange polo shirt because it’s National Gun Violence Awareness Day. He admires the different displays, but sends his posse’s attention to a small group playing a beanbag-toss game, only instead of beanbags, they’re using phallic sex toys.
“I don’t know people here,” he would say later.
And just like any politician in an election year, in a competitive primary, he can’t stay anywhere too long.
The day started with a parade in Shawnee where he missed seeing Republican candidate Kris Kobach waving from a Jeep that had a replica machine gun mounted in the back.
The day ends with him leaving PrideFest and rushing to Lenexa to celebrate his wife’s birthday.
Walking around the booths, he greets groups pointed out to him by Brandon Woodard, an openly gay Johnson County Democrat running for the Statehouse. Svaty either is oblivious or chooses to avoid the booth for Planned Parenthood, the group that has been his chief critic in the Democratic primary.
Before he leaves, he runs into Arden Andersen, another Democratic candidate for governor. They make small talk before the fear on most Kansas Democrats’ minds comes up.
“It doesn’t matter who of us gets in,” Andersen says as he laments Kobach and that morning’s replica machine gun display. “It has to be better than that.”
The Democrats’ dilemma
Svaty hopes to be a breath of fresh air, he says, for a state Democratic Party that could use a change of pace.
The Ellsworth farmer and father of four, who’s had one child since he announced his run for governor last year, is basing his campaign on the idea that Democrats have ignored a big part of Kansas for too long.
He’s a Medicaid expansion, rural-interest kind of guy, somewhere between modern progressive and youthful moderate.
“I think he definitely brings a unique perspective, being a young candidate for governor, which is exciting,” said Woodard, who has yet to make an endorsement in the race.
When you’re a Democrat in a Republican district, or a Republican state, Svaty said, you have to work four times harder than your GOP counterparts, right up to 7 on election night. It’s a lesson he said he learned while representing a House district in central Kansas.
“You automatically work from the assumption that you’re going to lose,” he said.
Democratic candidates in Kansas typically focus on turning out liberal strongholds such as Lawrence and Kansas City, Kan. Svaty is actively campaigning in more rural, GOP-dominated areas.
“This is really sad but for us, to be far more active campaigning in the rural areas than our predecessors — unfortunately, in the last 20 years, the bar has been set pretty low,” Svaty said. “Almost to out-and-out neglect.”
He also was critical of the Democratic Party establishment in Kansas. It has largely aligned behind Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat seen as the heir to former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
“I think we’ve got a party establishment that likes to crunch numbers and think about how to do things the way national Democrats do,” Svaty said. “And, surprise, surprise, they chronically lose statewide races.”
He says he hears from Democrats, the stalwarts who are happy just to have an event for a Democrat, but there are others, too, people who tell him don’t be part of the swamp, and agribusiness people who plead with him to not treat trade and agriculture the way the Trump administration is.
Former Kansas Gov. John Carlin, who has strongly supported Svaty’s run, said he’s known his fellow Democrat since Svaty was a young boy. He remembers being “blown away” by Svaty’s communication skills.
“He’s very bright, articulate and (has) an exceptional understanding of such a wide range of issues,” Carlin said.
Svaty served as state secretary of agriculture under Gov. Mark Parkinson and later worked for the Environmental Protection Agency during President Barack Obama’s administration. His wife, Kimberly, is a well known presence in Kansas politics who has worked as a lobbyist for the city of Wichita and groups that represent the wind energy industry and the horse track racing industry.
Kansans are sensing that their state agencies are not functioning, Svaty said, and if he wins the governor’s race, he wants to send an immediate message that the state has the most competent and engaged Kansans running those agencies.
Attacks on abortion
When he announced his run for governor last year, Svaty was lambasted by Planned Parenthood for anti-abortion votes during his time in the Kansas House. Their criticism continued despite Svaty picking an abortion-rights supporter, Katrina Lewison, an Iraq War veteran and former Black Hawk helicopter pilot, as his running mate.
Laura McQuade, then president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, vowed last year to stop Svaty “from gaining even the slightest political foothold in Kansas.”
McQuade has since left Great Plains Votes, and the group’s tone has softened considerably under Brandon Hill, McQuade’s successor.
But the organization’s concerns about Svaty remain, with additional attention being placed on his abortion views in light of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision to retire, reigniting thought that Roe v. Wade could be overturned and send the fight for legal abortion back to the states.
Svaty has also faced the scorn of Emily’s List, a well-funded liberal women’s group that criticized his past abortion votes and declared support for Kelly.
Svaty has repeatedly vowed to veto any new abortion restrictions. But he said he thinks it’s healthy for the state and the country to finally have a conversation about abortion driven by the voices and votes of people.
“It is time for the political groups that have used this as a weaponized issue to have a more real conversation about women’s health and what is not simply constitutional, but appropriate,” Svaty said. “And as long as both groups can hide behind the Supreme Court, all it ends up doing is having a gigantic outsized influence in elections, that I would say historically has driven our state further and further right and away from the center sort of government that we’ve been famous for for our 150 years.”
Svaty has made it clear that he’s no fan of President Donald Trump. But that doesn’t mean he would shun help from the federal government if it benefited Kansas.
“If he had a program that helped Kansans, I’m not going to stand in the way of it,” Svaty said. “You have to help make government work. People are sick of politicians and sick of government because of division and ideological barriers that are breaking it down on the federal level, breaking it down on the state level, breaking it down even at the local level.”
Back to the farm
Svaty talks constantly about his Kansas roots and the farm-life he devotes himself to when he has the time.
Samantha Neill, a childhood friend, fondly remembers her experiences growing up with Svaty in Ellsworth.
“I always found Josh to be a really trustworthy friend,” she said. “... I just always remember that I felt really comfortable and safe around Josh, like what you saw was what he was.”
If he does lose, Svaty doesn’t hesitate about what he’d do next.
Back to Ellsworth, back to his farm. The Svatys split their time between Topeka and Ellsworth.
“The farm,” he said. “I love that farm.”
In tying himself to a campaign strategy banking on reliably Republican western Kansas, Svaty tries to have a sense of humor.
“People have asked, ‘Well, what about the strategy?’ ” Svaty said. “And I was like, ‘Well, you know, if we lose the primary, then everybody will say, “Well, that was a terrible strategy.” ‘
“If we win it, ‘Well, he’s a genius.’ ”