Dave Helling

Laura Kelly has a big advantage in the race for Kansas governor: She’s a woman

Five facts you should know about Laura Kelly

Here are five things you should know about Democratic candidate Laura Kelly.
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Here are five things you should know about Democratic candidate Laura Kelly.

The conventional wisdom in Kansas is prompting a freak-out over the possibility that independent Greg Orman could take votes from Democrat Laura Kelly in November, making Republican Kris Kobach the next governor.

It’s a little much, even for conventional wisdom. Orman will take votes from Kobach, too, particularly among Republicans and independents who justifiably fear the excitable secretary of state. The election is close and far from over.

And Kelly has a key advantage in this race: her gender.

Women candidates are winning elections at an unprecedented clip in 2018. Most of those victories have come in Democratic primaries — the analytic website fivethirtyeight.com found a woman has prevailed in two-thirds of Democratic primaries in which a man and a woman were candidates this year.

“All else being equal, being a woman has been worth an additional 10 percentage points over being a man in the open Democratic primaries we looked at,” the website says. That’s an astonishing number.

Kelly won her competitive three-way primary with 52 percent of the Democratic vote. With one significant opponent, Kobach could only muster 41 percent of Republicans.

But Republican women are winning, too. Women now hold the highest percentage of seats in state legislatures in history.

Why are women candidates faring better than their male opponents? Theories abound. President Donald Trump’s anti-female rhetoric and reputation may be playing a role. The #MeToo movement is a factor.

Women are more credible as outsider candidates. Women voters are more enthusiastic about their choices this year.

Whatever the cause, it’s clearly a good year to be a woman running for office. And Kelly seems better positioned than most to take advantage of that.

Modern Kansas has been fertile ground for female candidates. For nearly 50 years, starting in 1966, at least one statewide elected official in Kansas was a woman.

Nancy Kassebaum, Jan Meyers, Nancy Boyda and Lynn Jenkins all served in Washington. The last two Democratic governors elected in the state, Joan Finney and Kathleen Sebelius, were women.

Kansas, among the first states to recognize a woman’s right to vote, has shown a clear willingness to consider female candidates in important elections. The 2018 governor’s race should be no exception.

History aside, Kelly’s gender will play a crucial role in upcoming policy debates. Kobach’s fierce opposition to public education and health care, and the misogyny of his friend Donald Trump, will draw the scorn of women voters, especially independent women in vote-rich Johnson County.

Republicans are clearly worried. This week, GOP state Rep. Don Hineman menaced party moderates, urging them to keep their anti-Kobach views under wraps.

Kelly could also be helped by enthusiasm for Sharice Davids, the woman running against Rep. Kevin Yoder in Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District.

Greg Orman? Women are quite familiar with inexperienced men trying to leapfrog women for workplace promotions. Advantage, state Sen. Kelly.

She is not the favorite. Republicans hold a sizable advantage in registration, and Orman complicates the picture. Turnout among .independent voters will decide the election.

But Kelly begins the fall campaign with more political experience than one of her opponents and more intelligence than the other. In the year of the woman in American politics, those are good places to start.