Leave it to a veteran Republican campaigner in red-state Kansas to explain why someone other than a die-hard conservative can be elected governor next November.
It’s the kind of thinking Democratic Party gubernatorial candidates are eager to claim as their own.
Former Sen. Jim Barnett, who won the GOP nomination for governor in 2006 before falling to incumbent Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, said unpopularity of policies enacted by Gov. Sam Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer make it possible for moderates to compete in 2018.
“The person who set up our candidacy is Governor Brownback,” said Barnett, part of a large field of GOP candidates for governor. “The mantra of the Republican Party has been smaller government, lower taxes fixes everything. I’m saying that’s not true. People know that from the Brownback-Colyer tax experiment. They saw it fail. They want a governor who will solve problems, who is pragmatic.”
Colyer, preparing to ascend to governor upon Brownback’s resignation, is running for governor against Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, former legislators Mark Hutton and Ed O’Malley, businessman Wink Hartman, Barnett and others.
The whisper of opportunity reaching Barnett’s ear can be heard by Democratic gubernatorial candidates. The current crop includes Wichita legislator Jim Ward, Ellsworth County farmer Josh Svaty, former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, Olathe physician Arden Anderson, Salina resident Robert Klingenberg and Wichita high school student Jack Bergeson.
“People are open to change,” said Svaty, a former state agriculture secretary. “They are excited about the possibility of a new administration.”
Democrats want to tap into a political uprising revealed when Brownback struggled to win re-election in 2014. The governor won a second term despite capturing less than 50 percent of the vote and losing support of nearly 100,000 Kansans between 2010 and 2014.
“The energy in our party all across the state is amazing,” said Ward, an attorney who serves as Kansas House minority leader.
Brewer, the first black elected mayor of Wichita, said Democrats can help themselves by aggressively campaigning in rural areas of the state. In the past, he said, sparsely populated areas were neglected by Democrats based on the belief little support for the party’s objectives resided outside urban centers.
“It’s going to require us to stop playing the numbers game,” he said. “We all, whether we’re Republican or Democrat or we’re independent, we all have families. We all want our children to have an education. We want businesses to come into our communities.”
Svaty, a former Kansas legislator and agriculture secretary, said sentiment alone wouldn’t be enough for a Democrat to prevail one year from now in the November election.
“We must have a voice that can connect with people all around the state of Kansas,” said Svaty, who claims to be the first Democratic candidate for governor from west of US-81 since Gov. John Carlin was re-elected in 1982.
In 2014, the Democrat’s candidate for governor, Lawrence attorney Paul Davis, received 130,000 more votes than 2010 Democratic nominee Tom Holland, of Baldwin City south of Lawrence. Still, both lost to Brownback.
Davis captured seven of the state’s 105 counties, a fraction of what Sebelius carried in 2002 and 2006 when elected governor.
“If Democrats want to win in 2018, we must expand the map beyond seven counties,” Svaty said. “This is an opportunity for Democrats to expand back into parts of the state where we have not been competitive.”
In 2016, moderate Republicans and Democrats won more seats in the Kansas Legislature. In the 2017 session, the reconstituted Legislature flexed its power by ending Brownback’s tax experiment in trickle-down economics.
That came after Democratic congressional candidate James Thompson made Republican Ron Estes sweat in the April special election for a U.S. House seat in Wichita.
Anderson, a physician and veteran who lives in Johnson County, said a smarter approach to budgeting that created savings necessary to improve health care and education could draw together conservative Republican and liberal Democratic voters in 2018.
He said Medicaid costs could be trimmed 20 percent by reforming prescription drug purchases and negotiating fees for radiology services. Savings can be poured into broadening Medicaid eligibility, he said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative when it comes to health care,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things you’ve got to talk about.”
Ward said the state’s next governor must meet bipartisan expectations for job expansion — everything from aviation in Wichita, biosciences in Johnson County to agriculture statewide.
“Companies are looking for qualified people and kids are looking for jobs,” he said.
Bergeson, the Wichita high school student, said Democrats could benefit from inspiring a younger generation by addressing the insufficient minimum wage, legalization of marijuana as well as reform of education and health care.
“If we can prove to the people of Kansas we can provide these things, they are more likely to come back to us.”