If there ever was a state in need of a deliberate, serious-minded conversation about the future, it’s Kansas.
With massive budget shortfalls, questions about how public schools are funded, worries about a depleted highway fund and a sharp rebuke from the federal government over the health care program for the poor, the time is ripe for a large-scale debate over what kind of state Kansas intends to be.
Lynn Jenkins, the Republican congresswoman from Topeka who rose to serve in House leadership in Washington, just upped the prospects that such a conversation will occur.
Her stunning — and wholly unexpected — announcement last week that she would not run for governor next year was a big step toward assuring a wide-open race and the type of dialogue that is so desperately needed. Jenkins was the consensus early frontrunner, a candidate capable of straddling the conservative-moderate divide. She had strong name ID, had run for and won statewide office twice before and might well have been a runaway winner who could have the luxury of avoiding straight talk.
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But in a move reminiscent of another Republican frontrunner of recent vintage who abruptly vanished from the scene — Attorney General Carla Stovall in 2002 — Jenkins is suddenly out.
“It has been and will continue to be an incredible honor to serve Kansans in Congress for what will be a decade at the conclusion of this Congress. For me, that is enough,” she said.
She isn’t the only significant politician off the 2018 gubernatorial radar. Also removed from the list is former Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo of Wichita, now President Donald Trump’s CIA chief.
What remains is a wildly unpredictable state of play. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is expressing interest in the governor’s office and would be formidable. But in a state that’s trending more moderate, his intensely controversial, far-right immigration stands might prove too hot.
Another possible big-name contender: two-term Attorney General Derek Schmidt. Others are expected, too, including possibly Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer.
And those are just the Republicans. Democrat Paul Davis, who gave Gov. Sam Brownback a scare in 2014, is seriously considering a second run.
“It’s unbelievably fluid,” said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist.
In a wide-open race, candidates will have to answer lots of questions. There’s no shortage of issues to discuss.
Tax policy heads the list. Lawmakers are wrangling over various options now in Topeka. But it remains possible, even likely, that they will not tackle a long-term solution to the state’s crippling budget woes this session or next, which will be an election year.
That would leave it incumbent on this next batch of gubernatorial candidates to spell out hard truths. Is a tax increase needed? How much of one? And which taxes? It’s easy to run on a platform of tax cuts, as Brownback did twice.
It’s harder to talk tax hikes. But that’s the unavoidable issue. The 2018 campaign should now provide ample opportunity for that conversation.