Melinda Henneberger

Josh Svaty may be pro-lifeish. Will Kansas Democrats allow such a thing?

As a Kansas legislator, Josh Svaty voted with his heavily Republican, rural district on abortion. But navigating this issue may be a trickier proposition in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
As a Kansas legislator, Josh Svaty voted with his heavily Republican, rural district on abortion. But navigating this issue may be a trickier proposition in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The Star

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Svaty got the question of the night, and of the year, from a man in suspenders in the third row: “For a lot of Democrats, particularly Democratic women, choice is a threshold issue. Can you say why, as a pro-choice Democrat, I should get enthusiastic about you?”

Svaty, a 37-year-old farmer, former EPA official and ag secretary who successfully ran for the Kansas statehouse out of his college dorm room, voted with his heavily Republican, rural district on the abortion issue. He began the answer that will matter most to his candidacy this way: “That was part of being responsive to constituents.”

He promised the dozen or so Miami County Democrats gathered in the basement of a former Ursuline convent that “I would not sign anything unconstitutional into law.” And he insisted that he understands all points of view on the most freighted question in American politics: To really address women’s health, “We have to stop talking past each other.”

The only hint of the heat he must be feeling was that he briefly slipped into the third person: “Some people make assumptions about someone based only on their voting record, when they’re probably much more moderate than they assume.” This particular “they” is, yes. But is that enough to win Svaty his party’s nomination, even in a state where it’s hard to see how a more by-the-book Democrat could best Donald Trump’s favorite Kansan, voter fraud inquisitor Kris Kobach?

Laura McQuade, of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, has called Svaty an “extremist” who must be stopped. Already, there’s talk that Svaty will be forced out of the primary, though he laughed at that bulletin and said that couldn’t be right because his party does want to win. Which isn’t yet clear.

“I think he’ll have a problem in the primary because of that issue,” said the man who’d asked him the question, former teacher and state senator Doug Walker. Though after hearing Svaty’s answer, he said, “I trust him a lot more on that issue than I did coming in. Nothing he said turned me off, and he does represent the new, and [his chief Democratic rival, lawmaker] Jim Ward does represent the old and traditional.” Out of friendship for Ward, Walker said, he’d stay loyal to him for now, “but I’d have zero problem working for Josh if he won” the primary. “And if he really could get a discussion started” across the divide, “that’s something no one else has been able to do.”

Lawmakers from the minority party in their districts, like Svaty, and governors from the minority party in their states, like Republicans Larry Hogan in Maryland and Charlie Baker in Massachusetts often make stronger leaders, Svaty reasons, because they have had to learn to listen. His pitch is that he’s the only Democrat who can win 10 or 15 counties in Western Kansas and do better than any other Democrat could in, say, Wallace County, where Hillary Clinton took 6 percent in 2016. To restore the Kansas that before Sam Brownback’s tax cuts had great schools and services, the next governor will have to bring people together.

Walker said he did wish he’d heard a little more from the candidate about his own abortion views. That opacity’s on purpose, of course. But Svaty is so far from being either a culture warrior or just another late convert to party orthodoxy that even in a long conversation, he avoided using any of the code words that usually signal our sympathies. To the point that I really do think his are on both sides, and beyond.

On the whole spectrum of views, where are you really, I asked Svaty one last time, as he was walking out the door of the meeting. “Trying to get people to understand that labels don’t help us,” he said. Then the local party chair turned the lights out.