As we enter 2018, it is hard not to feel like we’re heading into some of the more consequential months of our history, at the national level as well as right here in Kansas. The year 2017 was a roller-coaster year, and it seems this will continue into the current year, with an extremely influential election approaching us before 2018 ends. I will have more to say on national politics in later posts, but I’d like to start out this year with what we’re facing at the state level here in Kansas.
We begin the year with essentially two governors and no one knowing for sure when and how that will change. Next Tuesday, Gov. Sam Brownback will deliver the State of the State Address to the Kansas Legislature and the citizens of Kansas. It had been assumed for months that it would be Gov. Jeff Colyer giving the address, but the workings of the U.S. Senate got in the way. It is assumed that this will get corrected when/if Brownback’s nomination is resubmitted. Why is this an issue? Politically, it complicates things for Lt. Gov. Colyer. He had hoped to be leading the way, setting his own agenda and in the process establish himself as an incumbent running for re-election.
In my judgement, the race for Kansas governor in 2018 is more important for the future of this state than any preceding. Why do I say this? Because this election (in addition to the races for the Kansas House of Representatives) will decide whether, as a state, we once-and-for-all bury the Brownback agenda. We took a serious step in 2016 that led to the 2017 Legislature bringing a real breath of fresh air and progress to the state. The 2018 election will be a referendum on whether the people of Kansas like that direction or prefer to go back to the Americans for Prosperity approach of starving education, ignoring vital health care needs, underfunding basic state services and neglecting our state's infrastructure.
We also start 2018 with what has to be the largest field of candidates ever for governor within both parties and, to add to complication, a possible serious independent candidate. We are not used to this much interest and competition, especially Democrats, and from experience I know a little about how this changes things. In 1978, I had two serious, qualified opponents. It made fundraising a particular challenge because too many Democrats didn’t want to commit early or even before the primary. On the flipside, it is fortunate for Democrats that with a very crowded Republican race that there is serious competition for the Democratic nomination. Without that, there would be no real press coverage or forums to reach the public until after the primary.
This leads me to a very practical concern, especially for the very large field of Republican candidates. Without a run-off system (where there is a second election if the initial winner has less than 50 percent), the party’s winner might not really be the strongest candidate. For example, it could very easily be in the Republican race that the second finishing candidate might have much more support from those finishing down the line and would win a runoff vote. This is why most observers of our current Republican field believe clearly the early leader is Secretary of State Kris Kobach. This is despite his being very unpopular in many Republican circles — not to mention the scores of Kansans and Americans who are fed up with, among other things, his assault on the right to vote (part of which will face its day in court in March). With Kobach’s solid base of support, a crowded primary is much to his liking.
This election has so much at stake, as starkly different political agendas will go head-to-head. With so much contrast in possible outcomes, hopefully participation from voters will be driven up, even in an August primary. Ideally, there will be many public forums where you are able to evaluate the candidates side-by-side, free of the all-too-often false, misleading mailers and ads that we’ve become accustomed to, especially in this big-money era of politics. And, in the end, a new governor — who leads us into the future by bringing us together and not taking us back to the horrors of the last seven years — must prevail.
John Carlin, a Democrat who served two terms as governor of Kansas, now is a visiting professor/executive in residence at Kansas State University in the Staley School of Leadership Studies. Read his blog at johnwcarlin.com.