Jim Barnett and Ken Selzer face a tough path to become the Republican nominee for Kansas governor, but they’re determined to try.
They’ve carved out niches in the crowded GOP field without the spectacles of campaigning with replica machine guns or celebrities, or the slew of ribbon cuttings and parades available to a sitting governor.
But Selzer, the state insurance commissioner, and Barnett, the 2006 GOP nominee for governor, have posted single digits in polls against their two better-known candidates, Gov. Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Selzer, 65, relies on his background as a certified public accountant and his strongly held conservative values.
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“I have an ag background,” he said. “I married into ag, I’m invested in ag now. I know more about ag than any of the other governor candidates. I’m also the only businessman in the race. We’re going to make Kansas grow.”
Barnett, 63, has embraced the middle of the road. He’s a Topeka physician who favors Medicaid expansion and has said he supports raising the age limit to buy guns like the AR-15.
He sees his three main GOP competitors — Colyer, Kobach and Selzer — as being in the same vein as former Gov. Sam Brownback.
“They’re all the same,” Barnett said. “They’re all like Brownback.”
But both Barnett and Selzer have found themselves struggling to conquer the cacophony of noise coming from the rest of the Republican field.
Both men chose women as their running mates, with Barnett choosing his wife, Rosemary Hansen, and Selzer picking business owner Jenifer Sanderson of Goodland.
As Kobach and Colyer criticize each other, Selzer and Barnett have stuck to their chosen paths. For Selzer, it’s the quality of customer service that he boasts about from his time as insurance commissioner, a post he has held since 2015.
“We haven’t had a governor who understands what it means to attract businesses, to attract workers and make our economy grow,” Selzer said. “We will be focusing on that.”
Barnett’s pitch is that he’s a middle-of-the-road moderate.
“I think we are the only campaign that has a chance of defeating Kobach,” said Barnett, a former state senator.
Selzer’s line of attack has recently shifted to how much time Colyer and Kobach spend on their political jobs.
“We know the current governor spends his time as a plastic surgeon in Overland Park,” Selzer said. “We have such broad and deep issues in Kansas, we need somebody spending 80 hours a week on being a governor, not spending his time elsewhere. And the same is true for the secretary of state spending all his time consulting with other states and doing things in Washington, DC.”
Barnett has jabbed away at the candidates’ cherished policy provisions. For Kobach, that’s Crosscheck, a program that looks for double voter registrations; for Colyer, it’s KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid system.
Barnett further broke from the Republican field when he opposed an adoption bill that allows faith-based adoption agencies to reject gay and lesbian couples.
He said he’s focusing on six issues: economic development; agriculture and livestock; education; healthcare and healthcare access; tourism; and attracting and retaining young people.
“We have black eyes around the nation,” Barnett said. “And we need to market our state.”
Kansas has a focus on social issues, Barnett said, when the state can’t even balance the budget.
“We look like a state that can’t put money in the bank for highways, can’t stay out of court for schools,” Barnett said.
Given the fractured nature of the Republican field, Barnett said he thinks a candidate can win the primary with a plurality in the 30 percent range.
One of the challenges for Barnett and Selzer is each other, said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University.
“If it was Kobach, Colyer and then that third alternative, it would be an easier path for either Barnett or Selzer,” Beatty said. “It’s very possible they could split that alternative vote on Election Day. So it’s a tough path because of that, because of each other.”
Selzer dismissed the notion that his campaign was struggling, despite the data from the polls released thus far.
“We can feel the traction that we are developing throughout Kansas,” he said.
Barnett said he was inspired to run for governor again when he saw the results of the 2016 election cycle, when moderate Republicans ousted conservative incumbents. He described it as a “legislature that was willing to run for office just to fix the mess that was created by the Brownback/Colyer tax experiment.”
“I saw that and thought maybe the state would be willing to elect a governor who’s willing to do the same,” Barnett said. “To just do what was right for the state and not think about their next election cycle.”
Other Republican candidates
Kucera describes himself as an “entrepreneurial evangelist” who said in his campaign kickoff statement that he is a “strong pro-life, pro-Second Amendment conservative.” He also supports term limits. His campaign initially focused on helping the aviation and agriculture sectors.
Ruzich is one of the teenage candidates in the race who has billed himself as a moderate Republican. He announced his run while still attending Shawnee Mission North High School and told The Star earlier that he is “very much against the fiscal policy and education policy of our (former) governor, Sam Brownback.”
Joseph Tutera Jr.
Tutera is another teenage candidate who announced his run as a 16 year old. He has expressed disappointment on Twitter that he has not been on stage at a Kansas GOP governor debate.