Kansas women are poised to decide the winner when Democrats hold their first primary for governor in two decades Tuesday, and the state’s only living female governor is working hard to guide voters to the only woman in the race.
Former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius helped recruit her longtime friend state Sen. Laura Kelly into the race for governor and has emerged as the Topeka Democrat’s most significant surrogate ahead of the Aug. 7 primary.
During a Saturday campaign appearance at Breit’s Stein and Deli in Kansas City, Kan., Sebelius began her speech to a mostly female crowd by reflecting on the virtues of Kansas women and how they guided the values of the president Sebelius served.
“What I like to remind people is that President Obama was raised by Kansas women, his mother and his grandmother,” Sebelius told the crowd to applause. “People would say to me on the campaign trail, ‘I don’t really know about much about Obama.’ I’d say, ‘I do. Because I know Kansas women and they are the ones who gave him his value and his vision.’ ”
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Sebelius scanned the room and gave shout-outs to the other leaders present — congressional candidate Sharice Davids, former Kansas City, Kan., school superintendent Cindy Lane and state Sen. Pat Pettey — before launching into her speech about Kelly, the only woman at the top of the ticket in the five-way Democratic primary race.
“I knew that 2018 was critical in Kansas because we frankly cannot have another term of Republican leadership running in the wrong direction or this state will blow up in smoke,” Sebelius said.
Kelly initially refused Sebelius’ efforts to recruit her but was persuaded to jump in the race in December. She quickly became the top Democratic fundraiser with the strength of Sebelius’ former campaign network and national groups such as Emily’s List behind her.
“I think this all sort of started bubbling up with the Women’s March right after the inauguration, and the momentum has just kept going,” Kelly said when asked about the role of women in the primary.
“And women feel — they feel empowered, but they also feel threatened particularly with this retirement of Justice (Anthony) Kennedy. And so I think what you’re seeing — and this is all over the country and all over Kansas — they’re sick and tired of not being heard, so they’re out there making their voices heard.”
Kennedy’s retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court has raised concerns among abortion rights supporters that Roe v. Wade could be overturned in the future, which would send the issue of the legality of abortion back to the states.
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said women tend to make up 55 to 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate nationally and that female candidates have won two-thirds of primary races when there’s no Democratic incumbent.
“Democratic women seem more acutely aware than normal right now about the underrepresentation in politics,” said Miller, who tied this to frustration about President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric about women.
Cynthia Terrell, the executive director of RepresentWomen, a Maryland-based group that works to promote greater female representation in government, agreed that women are winning primaries at a higher rate this year.
“I do think that women are feeling like there’s got to be a solution,” she said.
“I think it’s stupid to say it’s the year of the woman because that implies after 2018 we’re done, but I do think it’s fair to say it’s the year that women candidacies have become normalized and that is certainly a milestone,” said Terrell, who noted that female governors are still a rarity.
It was a point of conversation among a group of five women seated at a table at the deli Saturday. As the women listed their reasons for supporting Kelly, they pointed to her record on education and public health issues.
“And she’s a woman,” added Kay Hoech, a retired teacher from Fairway. “It means I expect her to know what we need, what we want.”
Kansas has not had a female statewide elected official since Republican Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger retired in January 2015. Women make up 28 percent of the Legislature, a slightly lower percentage than in the early 1990s.
Four of the women at the table were sold on Kelly as the choice in the primary. Carol Levers, the director of libraries for Kansas City, Kan., said she has already cast her ballot for Kelly.
But Beth Ciperson, a chef who retired in Kansas after years of working in New York, said she was still trying to decide between Kelly and Josh Svaty. She’s worried about Kelly’s legislative record of voting in favor of NRA-backed bills to loosen gun regulations.
“The gun laws in Kansas are just unbelievable,” Ciperson said.
Hoech warned her against Svaty based on his legislative record of voting in favor of abortion restrictions.
“He says he’s for women’s rights, but he’s never voted for them,” Hoech said.
Asked about Svaty’s outreach to female voters, campaign spokesman Mike Swenson said that women have played a crucial role in the Ellsworth Democrat’s campaign.
“Josh always wanted to have a woman as his running mate and he found a great one in Katrina Lewison. Katrina represents the modern day working Kansas mom who understands the art of balancing family and work,” Swenson said.
He said that Svaty and Lewison have been “connecting with women across all of Kansas. And what they have heard and witnessed is that women are interested in many issues, not just a single issue. They want better access to affordable healthcare, good schools, common sense gun laws and they want an economy that is strong and produces job opportunities.”
Sebelius pointed to reproductive health — along with education and economic development — as being a key issue for the coalition of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans that twice elected her governor.
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, called Sebelius the most valuable surrogate any Democratic candidate could have in Kansas.
“Sebelius is the one bona fide superstar in the Kansas Democratic Party,” said Beatty.
Despite Davids’ presence at the Saturday event, Sebelius has not officially endorsed any candidate in Kansas’ 3rd congressional district ahead of a six-way Democratic primary.
The former governor said she has stayed out of the primary because she doesn’t live in the district, but but she plans to help the primary winner against U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, the incumbent Republican, in the fall.
Beatty predicted that Davids will help new draw voters to the polls and that these voters could give a boost to Kelly on Tuesday.
“They both might benefit from each other,” she said.
Both Davids and Kelly are endorsed by Emily’s List, a national group which works to elect female Democrats. The group’s Women Vote PAC has been spending heavily in favor of Davids’ candidacy ahead of the primary.
During the final week before the primary, the group will spend roughly $150,000 for television ads on KMBC, KCTV and KSHB, according to records from the Federal Communication Commission. This comes on top of a previous $400,000 ad buy.
If elected, Davids would make history as the first openly LGBT person to represent Kansas and the first Native American woman in Congress. She has often highlighted the theme of inclusion on the campaign trail.
“One of the things I always like to highlight is that women and people of color and LGBT folks have always had a voice. It’s just is who is the decision maker who is listening?” Davids said Saturday.
“It matters how hard the decision maker wants to listen.”
Davids is one of two women in the six-way primary race. The other is businesswoman Sylvia Williams.
Miller said that nationally there have been spikes in turnout for Democratic primaries this year, a trend that appears to be driven by suburban women.
“We’re in the middle of a political moment for women,” he said.