TOPEKA — The Kansas Democrats running for governor clashed Saturday over who can best beat a Republican — such as Kris Kobach — and independent Greg Orman.
The focus on who can attract general election support comes amid the state party's first contested primary for governor in decades.
Some fear Orman will draw votes away from the Democratic candidate, allowing the Republican — whether it's Gov. Jeff Colyer or Kobach, the secretary of state — to win.
Winning the August primary requires courting the party's core supporters. But to win the general election, the nominee will need the support of independents and some Republicans.
It's a delicate balance. Without a primary fight, Democrats have not had to choose for years how moderate or liberal their nominee needs to be.
But during a party gathering in Topeka, candidates urged Democrats to consider who can best win in November.
"This forum can't be about who is more Democratic than the other. This forum has to be about who can win this election in November 2018 and build a party that can win again in 2020 and 2022," said Josh Svaty, a former state representative.
Democrats must unite in order to win, said Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka.
"I am the only candidate who can beat Kris Kobach or Jeff Colyer and Greg Orman," Kelly said.
Former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer said voters are looking for a governor "that's going to provide leadership, not someone who's going to give you a lot of rhetoric." He can offer a clear difference to Kobach, he said.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, who represents Wichita, asked the forum audience who can beat Kobach.
"Who do you want standing on that stage on September 5th defending our options? Because that's the stakes that we face," Ward said, referring to an anticipated general election debate.
None of the candidates attacked each other on stage. Much of the 90-minute forum was spent on policy, with the major candidates keeping significant policy differences to a minimum.
Most expressed support for key Democratic ideas: expand Medicaid, improve infrastructure, improve the state's welfare programs, and so on.
No question was asked about gun control, where the candidates diverge. Ward has attacked Kelly's past votes to authorize permitless conceal carry.
Policy differences were more prominent among the lesser-known candidates who participated. Salina salesman Robert Klingenberg voiced support for a public healthcare system.
"We can expand Medicaid as a stop gap in order to help alleviate the burden, but I believe we can have a single-payer public option in the state of Kansas, as long as we're willing to work toward it," Klingenberg said.
But Olathe physician Arden Andersen rejected the idea. He said a good system will necessarily be more complex.
"It's not as simple to say it's a single-payer system. It's a dual system. It's public and private, combined — both," Andersen said.
Meanwhile, high school student Jack Bergeson stressed the importance of legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana. Kansas "could use that money to go into our education system," he said.
Democrats emphasize that the primary contest is a good thing.
The party hasn't had to figure out who its primary voters are in a long time, said Chris Reeves, the state party's national committeeman.
"This really is a test of who are our voters. We're going to be offered some very different perspectives on who our voters are, how strongly they feel about issues of choice, guns, these are the points that all the candidates are talking about," Reeves said.
"We're going to define ourselves in a way. We're going to see where the heck the community is. That's good."
Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, is running for secretary of state against Democrat Brian McClendon, a former Google and Uber executive. She said the governor and secretary primary races are both contested for the first time that she can remember.
The contests present a real opportunity, she said.
"It's members of the party figuring out how they want to be represented. So they're picking the slate. We're Democrats, we differ on issues and we have different sets of skills," Francisco said.
But the contest also holds the potential to split fundraising among the candidates.
"I know for sure there are a lot of Democrats who are being called by all four of the legitimate candidates for governor and they're all being told, 'well, I'm a little uncomfortable making a decision right now.' Because they're not used to it," said former Gov. John Carlin, who appeared this weekend with Svaty.
The last elected Democratic governor of Kansas on Friday endorsed Kelly. Kathleen Sebelius said Kelly "knows how to work with others and will unite Kansans of all backgrounds, even as forces inside our state and out work to divide us."
The other candidates called Sebelius' endorsement unsurprising, given that the two are friends and Sebelius donated $2,000 to Kelly's campaign in December.