The keyed-up Kansas Democrats who came to Topeka last weekend to hear from their seven gubernatorial candidates had some nice things to say about state Sen. Laura Kelly, who was recruited into the race by her longtime friend and next-door neighbor Kathleen Sebelius, the former governor.
After the candidate forum, Kelly’s fellow Democrats described her as “knowledgeable,” “smart,” “good” and “measured.”
But she has an understated personality, lost her place during her opening statement and drew fewer whoops from the crowd than several other contenders, including 17-year-old Jack Bergeson, who argued for legalizing pot every chance he got.
And whether Kelly is too measured was a worry for some in the crowd at Washington Days.
“I was really supportive of Laura Kelly coming into this, but it scares me against Kris Kobach’’ the Trumpian secretary of state considered a Republican frontrunner, that she doesn’t come across more forcefully, said Brett Smith, a 24-year-old from Jefferson County. “She has the political positions, but I was most impressed with Svaty.”
That’s Josh Svaty, a 38-year-old farmer, former state lawmaker, EPA official and Kansas agriculture secretary, who argues that while the candidates agree on plenty, he’s the only one who can win by appealing to moderate Republicans and competing in places Kelly and the others can’t.
Paul Davis, the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee who is running for Congress this year, was by all accounts an excellent candidate and still carried only seven of the state’s 105 counties, all in the more populous eastern part of the state, despite incumbent Sam Brownback’s low approval rating. What Svaty is asking is why anyone thinks that Kelly can do better.
“This forum cannot be about who is more Democratic,” he said in his opening statement, “but about who can actually win an election.”
If anything, Svaty struck me as a little over-caffeinated in Topeka, especially in contrast to Kelly. But that’s not how he came off to the crowd.
“I was most surprised by Svaty,” said longtime Democrat Kirk Fast. “His dynamic speaking style, his passion and his background is more extensive than I thought.”
State representative candidate George Hanna said he was “very impressed with [House Minority Leader] Jim Ward, and Svaty’s charismatic presentation was fantastic.” Of Kelly, he said, “if she could be a little less reserved, it would translate a little better.”
It would, but that’s tough to learn at any age, and Kelly is 68.
When I first heard the talk about how worryingly soft-spoken she is, I rolled my eyes on the inside and thought yeah, that’s what we often hear about female candidates. But Kelly is low-key by any standard, and says things like, “I agree with a lot of the things that have already been said.”
Svaty took her on by inference every time he spoke, repeatedly making the point that it doesn’t matter how pure a Democrat you are if you can’t win in conservative Kansas. Ward has taken Kelly on from the left, dinging her on past gun votes.
Never once did Kelly or any of the others have the pluck to fire back that the same anti-abortion votes Svaty cast as a state lawmaker that help make him eligible for some crossover support disqualify him for some Democrats. Svaty has said that he was representing his district with those votes and has promised he wouldn’t sign any new abortion restrictions into law as governor.
Kelly’s pitch is that she has the skills and experience, and there’s no doubt about that. And “I’m the only candidate who can beat Kris Kobach or Jeff Colyer and Greg Orman,” who is running as an independent, she said in closing. But there is some doubt about that.