Dave Helling

The invisible campaign for Kansas City mayor: Can you name any of the candidates?

Today, a quiz. Without looking, name three candidates for Kansas City mayor.

Did you pass? Maybe, if you’re an avid news consumer. If not?

I asked a guy outside a downtown restaurant Tuesday if he could name any mayoral candidates. He didn’t even know there was an election coming up.

That’s not an isolated incident.

For the record, there is a primary, on April 2. But unless one or more of the candidates ups his or her game in the next few weeks, voters will go to the polls that day with only the vaguest of ideas about how to cast their ballots.

Yes, the 11 candidates for mayor are hitting town halls and forums and are seeking endorsements. Reporters are rumbling to life, with profiles and on-air interviews. Doors have been knocked. Campaign offices have opened.

But the lack of buzz about the election is deafening. Have you seen yard signs? Have you gotten anything in the mail? Have you talked about the race with your friends or family? Didn’t think so.

A check of FCC records this week showed no purchases yet of any candidate airtime on local, over-the-air TV. That may make the evening news easier to watch, but it makes the mayor’s race about as hot as this week’s ice storm.

Conversations with advisers and candidates yield agreement on these symptoms, but disagreements about the disease. Some blame a lack of money. Others say candidates are reaching out to voters in specific places, not the whole city.

Voters wait longer to make up their minds. Campaigning in February is hard. The candidates agree on too many issues. Non-partisan races are always boring.

Some blame the 1991 mayoral primary, when two candidates spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to savage each other, only to watch voters abandon both and choose well-known City Council members instead. That race has made everyone risk-averse.

Whatever the reason, the result is clear: With less than seven weeks to go, the biggest challenge for every candidate is simple name recognition. By some estimates, nearly half the electorate remains undecided — and unsure about the choices.

If you’re a candidate, that’s a problem. But it’s also an opportunity.

The mayor’s race is waiting for a candidate — any candidate — to step forward and claim a place in the top tier. It might be an issue that moves the needle: homelessness, for example, or pedestrian safety, or a novel approach to tax policy, or police department control.

It could be a TV commercial. A mailer critical of an opponent. It might include forming a slate with other council candidates. A series of news conferences on a single topic. Anything to lift the candidate from anonymity.

Insiders say we may see some of this in the next few weeks. Good. There is danger in waiting much longer than that. Big ideas unveiled just before an election often fail to get traction or backfire altogether.

Not everyone can step into the light, of course. Perennial candidate Clay Chastain is bursting with ideas, but suffers from reverse name-recognition: Everyone knows who he is. For Clay, that’s a problem.

The other candidates, though, remain ciphers for most voters.

The first campaign to fill in the blanks has the best shot of surviving the primary and making it to June. By March, we’ll know if anyone has the courage to do so.

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Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.