TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature is poised for a showdown with rival bills setting a minimum age for gubernatorial candidates in response to campaigns by Kansas teenagers, people from other states and a dog.
The Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday for a bill requiring candidates for governor and lieutenant governor in Kansas to be at least 30 years of age. Under the House’s version of that reform bill adopted in February, eligible candidates for those two offices would need to be 18 on Election Day.
Kansas statute doesn’t set minimum qualifications to run, which means a teenager could be elected to the state's highest political offices.
Sen. Randall Hardy, R-Salina, said impetus for the legislation was the flood of unorthodox candidates for governor in the 2018 election cycle.
“A Pandora’s box has been opened in the state of Kansas and every subsequent election for governor would include candidates that might put us on the national news, but not for the best of reasons,” said Hardy, who led Senate floor debate on House Bill 2539. “We had several teenagers who aspired to be governor. We had at least one canine that expressed interest.”
He argued a cluster of young, inexperienced or mediocre candidates on the ballot could divert support from legitimate challengers. As an example, he said a primary race could be awkwardly tipped to a second-tier candidate if "there are enough Timmys" draining votes.
The Senate rejected amendments that would have moved the age for gubernatorial candidates to 18 and 25.
Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, said advocates of the candidate-age reform legislation appeared to have been driven in part to avoid what they view as embarrassment of having six high-school students campaigning for governor. However, he said, people of the same age serve our nation in combat or can be subject to lethal execution as an adult.
“We have 18-year-olds that, you know, go off and fight wars for our country, do we not? Likewise, basically, if you’re 18 years or older, you can face capital punishment and be put to death. Is that correct? I really wonder if we’re diminishing the political discourse by starting to put an age restriction on those who can run for governor and lieutenant governor,” Holland said.
Nationally, 34 states have a minimum age of 30 for governor candidates. Six states are at 25 years of age, one state sets the benchmark at 21 and six states are at 18. Oklahoma is at 31, while Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado stand at 30.
Hardy said the average age of Kansas governors upon taking office has been 47.
“The collective wisdom of the state of Kansas says that the average age should be at least 30,” he said. “This bill will be an incentive for serious candidates to run for the highest office in the state. We’re asking people to be a CEO of a 36,000-employee company.”
However, Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, said the report on the average age for Kansas governors left her with a simple question.
“Why do we need this bill?” she said. “I think I’m going to put my confidence in the voters of Kansas. They seem to have done a very good job so far.”
In interviews and candidate forums, the high-schoolers campaigning for governor have staunchly defended their entrance into electoral politics. The dog put forward as a candidate was rejected by Secretary of State Kris Kobach. At least seven people from other states have thrown their hats into the ring.
Under both the Senate and House versions of the bill, all candidates for attorney general would have to be licensed to practice law in Kansas. Provisions of the bill would take effect in January 2019, following the November general election for governor.