On Wednesday, Kansans got a new governor. Jeff Colyer’s emergence from the witness protection program of being Lt. Governor should be the story of the week.
Colyer has six months to establish a record and a persona that will carry him to victory in the crowded GOP primary election. No mean feat.
What’s the problem? In short, the 2018 election is all about gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach, the current Secretary of State.
First, a little history. Since 1974, when Kansas adopted four-year gubernatorial terms, every successful candidate has either served as a top legislative leader or has held an elected statewide office. In the 1970s and 1980s, Bob Bennett, John Carlin and Mike Hayden came from the Legislature. From 1990 on, Governors Joan Finney, Bill Graves, Kathleen Sebelius and Sam Brownback all moved to Cedar Crest directly from elected statewide positions, although none served as attorney general, the most notable stepping-stone office.
Winning a down-ballot statewide office is a viable route to the governorship. In 2018, this is the path trod by Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer and, most notably, Secretary of State Kris Kobach. While Selzer remains essentially unknown, Kobach is far more recognizable, even notorious.
Unlike Bill Graves, who in 1994 rose unexpectedly from serving as a conventional Secretary of State to winning the governorship, Kobach stands in 2018 as the best known gubernatorial aspirant (the good news) and the one with by far the highest disapproval rating (the bad news).
Kobach, given his unapologetic support for voter suppression, nativism and the Brownback tax cuts, has become the focal point — explicitly or not — of all Republican and Democratic candidates.
Like Donald Trump, Kobach doubles down at almost every opportunity; unlike Trump, he remains consistent in his alt-right approach to politics, whether writing exclusionary, unconstitutional anti-immigrant laws across the country or frothing vitriol at the Breitbart website or defending the indefensible Kansas Crosscheck voter security (sic) system. Add to these issues his unstinting backing for the unpopular Sam Brownback and his own high negatives, to say nothing of modest early fund-raising, and Kobach might well look less than formidable.
For Colyer and the other five so-called major Republican aspirants, however, the problem is to find a way for one of them to surpass the 25-to-30 percent of the vote that Kobach seems destined to win. To be sure, recent national publicity on Trump’s voting commission debacle and state attention to the insecure multi-state Crosscheck could combine to reduce his core support. Still, with six serious candidates and a host of minor ones, winning even 20 percent of the GOP primary vote might propel Kobach to the GOP nomination.
Kobach’s notoriety has increased the visibility of the Secretary of State position, and several candidates from both parties likely regard the office as a gateway to further advancement. Three significant Republicans — Representatives Keith Esau and Scott Schwab and GOP state chair Kelly Arnold — have announced, along with two Democrats — Sen. Marci Francisco and newcomer Brian McClendon. While it is noteworthy that four veteran Kansas politicos are vying for the office, it’s equally significant that McClendon, a Kansas native with an extensive background in the tech industry (Google and Uber), has returned to the state to run for a traditionally unglamorous position.
Kobach has certainly raised the relevance of his office, but so have disputes about voting rights, both in Kansas and across the country. The governor’s race will surely be the main event in 2018, but the important undercard battle to become secretary of state will be worth watching as well.
Burdett Loomis is an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Kansas.