(TNS) — Kansas Democrats are preparing for the departure of arguably their biggest foe — Gov. Sam Brownback — by staying the course.
Brownback was nominated by President Donald Trump last week to be ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. His appointment still must be confirmed by the Senate.
As one of the most unpopular governors in the country, Brownback has been a near-perfect foil for Democrats. The party has sought to make Brownback a heavy weight around the necks of Republican opponents and that has paid electoral dividends: Democrats picked up more than a dozen state legislative seats last year.
"Brownback might be leaving Kansas, but the damage he and (Lt. Gov. Jeff) Colyer have done to our schools, businesses and families certainly isn't going anywhere soon. That is why Brownback's departure does not change the strategy for Democrats in 2018," said party chairman John Gibson.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who is weighing a run for governor, said "this is still Sam Brownback's Republican Party."
Officially, that's still the case. The Kansas Republican Party said it is proud of Brownback as he "leads the way into a new day for international religious freedom."
Numerous Republicans either continue to embrace Brownback or to largely support his policy agenda. But some Republicans have broken publicly with the governor, particularly on tax and budget policy, and the GOP-controlled Legislature overrode his veto of tax increases to balance the budget.
Josh Svaty, a former Democratic state lawmaker now running for governor, said his approach won't change even if Brownback leaves.
"We always knew Gov. Brownback wasn't going to be on the ballot in 2018 so he was never really part of the strategy in the first place," Svaty said.
Carl Brewer, a former Wichita mayor and candidate for governor, sounded a similar note.
"Candidates and legislators have expected Governor Brownback's departure for a while so I don't think the approach to campaigning will change much," Brewer said.
How large Brownback will ultimately loom in the 2018 election may depend on who Republicans choose as their gubernatorial nominee.
Kansas Secretary of State and GOP gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach is a lightning rod because of his stance on illegal immigration and voter identification laws, but has less connection to Brownback than other Republicans. Jim Barnett, a former state lawmaker, has been largely absent from politics for the past few years and strikes a more moderate approach on some issues, such as Medicaid expansion, than Brownback.
Colyer, who has been at Brownback's side for years, hasn't said whether he will run. But Democrats are already emphasizing his connection to Brownback.
"First of all, we've got to see who gets through the Republican primary. That's a big, open question," said Tom Witt, chair of the Kansas Democratic Party's progressive caucus.
"And then, second, Colyer has been lock-step on the Brownback agenda and it's the job of the Democrats to present an alternative so when the voters go to the polls in a year and a half they have a clear choice and are able to set a new direction for the state."
Brownback said last week that "Jeff is his own man, his own person."
Colyer has neither sought to distance himself from the governor nor reinforce their past since the announcement. But he left room to break with the governor's policies, saying in a statement he looks forward to working with Kansans from across the state and "listening to their vision for the future."
Now that the 2012 tax cuts have been rolled back and Brownback is likely on the way out, both political parties and their candidates will be in a race to define their vision of what's next for Kansas, Ward said.
The Democrats announced Tuesday a new process for drafting their party platform designed to produce more grassroots feedback.
As part of the effort, the party is holding public comment sessions over the next few days, including one at 2 p.m. Saturday in Wichita at 3340 West Douglas Ave.
"Now it's a blank sheet of paper and whatever side paints a picture of what's next that resonates with people is going to win," Ward said.