Republicans in Kansas further splintered Tuesday as the last moderate member of the party to hold the governor’s office endorsed a Democrat for governor over Kris Kobach, the GOP nominee.
In a statement, former Kansas governor Bill Graves said he planned to support state Sen. Laura Kelly in the November election. Kelly is running against Kobach and independent Greg Orman.
“Laura Kelly is the only Democrat I have ever endorsed for public office,” Graves said in the statement. “And the reason I’m doing that now is because I believe so much is at stake in the state of Kansas. I have known Laura for over thirty years. She has all the qualities and all the capabilities that we are looking for to lead the state during this difficult time and to reestablish the state to what it once was.”
Graves, who served as governor from 1995 to 2003, is the most prominent Republican to support Kelly this election cycle.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Despite saying he has never endorsed a Democrat for public office in his statement, at least two Democratic candidates for the Kansas Legislature boasted during the 2016 cycle that Graves had endorsed them. Before Kelly, Graves had never endorsed a Democrat for statewide office according to the Democrat’s campaign.
The Kansas GOP said in an email that the support shows “the defenders of the Topeka status quo are quivering in their loafers.”
“This banded effort is a clear sign to voters that Kris Kobach is the candidate of change,” the party said.
The endorsement comes roughly two weeks after House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from Dighton, wrote an email to more than two dozen of his fellow centrists to discourage them from taking a public stance on anyone other than Kobach, the party’s standard bearer.
In the email, Hineman warned that support for Orman or Kelly “could well be a career-ending move for anyone who chose to do so.”
A spokeswoman for the Kobach campaign doubled down on the candidate’s criticism of both candidates as liberal after the endorsment was made public.
“There are two committed liberal candidates in the race, and I am happy that Graves was able to choose one to support. Kansas Democrats have a tough choice to make on the first Tuesday of November,” Kobach spokeswoman Danedri Herbert said.
Orman’s campaign tried to frame Graves’ endorsement for Kelly as a step backward.
“It’s back to the future with Laura Kelly,” the Orman campaign said in a statement. “The way to move forward is to move forward. Not to look in the rear view mirror. If you want Kris Kobach, you want to go back to 1910. If you want Laura Kelly, you want to take us back to 2002 and the start of the decline.”
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, called the Graves endorsement “a big deal.”
A number of moderate Republicans endorsed Democrat Paul Davis in his challenge of then-Gov. Sam Brownback in 2014, Beatty said, but none on the level of Graves.
“No matter what, the former governor who had the highest vote percentage of any governor in Kansas history, to endorse someone from the other party is pretty significant,” Beatty said.
Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, a moderate Republican from Emporia who endorsed Gov. Jeff Colyer in the GOP primary, said he was surprised by the move.
“I think you could see a lot of people supporting Kobach,” Longbine said. “And you could probably see other people that are looking for other places.”
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican who supports Kobach, tweeted that “Bill Graves never governed as a Republican and spent his career undermining Republican candidates and values. This endorsement is far from news breaking.”
Graves’ endorsement puts him and former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on the same side of a statewide race for the second time in recent years.
Kelly is a close friend and ally of Sebelius, who has strongly supported Kelly’s campaign. During the 2016 election cycle, Graves and Sebelius teamed together with other former Kansas governors to campaign in favor of retaining the state Supreme Sourt justices on the ballot that year.
And despite calls for unity in the party after Kobach defeated Colyer in the Republican primary, moderates contacted by The Star have yet to fully embrace Kobach as a candidate.
Rep. Jene Vickrey, a Louisburg Republican who served in the House during Graves’ time as governor, has said he supports Kobach as the nominee.
“I’m not at all surprised,” he said of Graves’ endorsement. “I think his influence is a lot less than it was at one time.”