Steve Rose

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer needs to toughen up to beat Kris Kobach in 2018

Kansas Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer had better grow fangs between now and the 2018 GOP primary if he intends to beat Kris Kobach for the Republican nomination for governor.
Kansas Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer had better grow fangs between now and the 2018 GOP primary if he intends to beat Kris Kobach for the Republican nomination for governor. AP

After a one-hour chat with Kansas Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, I came away with one overriding thought: Colyer had better grow fangs between now and the 2018 GOP primary if he intends to whip Kris Kobach for the Republican nomination for governor.

The two are front-runners in a pack of challengers. But Colyer, who will take the state’s top job when Gov. Sam Brownback is confirmed to an ambassadorship, comes across as a bit too vague.

Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, has honed his skills at spewing fire and brimstone, but Colyer has never had to get tough. He has served as lieutenant governor longer than anyone in Kansas history, and that job just does not require hand-to-hand combat or attention-grabbing maneuvers to get noticed and earn respect.

I tried pinning down Colyer on issue after issue, but he would not commit to much.

How does he differ from Brownback? How does he differ from Kobach? What about Medicaid expansion? Does he believe there is widespread voter fraud in Kansas and throughout the country? I tried to lure him into a timely discussion about the future of Kansas City International Airport. After all, Colyer helped spearhead the effort to relocate KCI to Johnson County. What if the November ballot issue fails in Kansas City? Colyer would not bite. He said any comments now would be inappropriate.

What Colyer did want to talk about was his ability to solve problems. Ho-hum. A surgeon by trade, he says he knows how to tackle challenging issues and get things done. That’s admirable, but will this theme win elections? Nope.

Colyer must have posed the same rhetorical questions to me a dozen times during our conversation: Where should Kansas be five years from now? How can we make the state even greater? What do we want to be as a state? My thought was, who cares?

Most Kansans are worried about the budget, school finance, tax rates, abortion, health care, highways and the all-important ideology of the next elected governor. Who wants to dream a little dream with Jeff Colyer when there are so many critical issues facing Kansas in the aftermath of his partner Brownback’s reign of terror?

Colyer faces a tough challenge. He cannot openly rebuke Brownback without incurring backlash from the current governor’s loyalists, nor can he afford to embrace him, given Brownback’s abiding unpopularity. Colyer will say only that he will be more collaborative, be a better listener and a more effective unifier than we have seen in Kansas during the past several years.

The current No. 2 political leader in the state said repeatedly he does not want to dwell on the past. He is far more interested in the future. That’s an understandable strategy, to avoid talking about the upheaval in Kansas. But it won’t work. Eventually, Colyer will have to say more about what he would have done or not done had he been governor, as well as what he intends to do.

Kobach has already started to stake his claim as the real conservative Republican in the race. He has mouthed his approval of the Brownback mantra — low taxes and reduced expenses, along with a get-tough approach to social issues such as abortion. Kobach has carved out a few additional niches with immigration issues and his own notoriously false claims of voter fraud that somehow have scored points with many voters.

Colyer is just as conservative. His brief record as a state legislator and his strong comments on keeping taxes low and cutting budgets, along with his tough-as-it-gets views on abortion give Colyer conservative credentials, which will be critical to winning a low-turnout Republican primary race.

A significant event in this GOP contest will come when Colyer replaces himself. After becoming governor, Colyer will select a new lieutenant governor, who likely will be Colyer’s running mate in the 2018 campaign.

Will he pick a conservative? A moderate? My hunch is he will pick someone who cannot be pigeonholed on ideology but who has been successful in business and can underscore the importance of having problem-solvers at the helm.

Problem-solving alone will not win an election. Voters will want to know about Colyer’s ideology. And if he wants to prevail over Kobach, he’s got to go after him with full force and fury.