Former Republican Gov. Bill Graves on Tuesday threw his support behind state Sen. Laura Kelly, endorsing a Democrat for statewide office for the first time.
Kelly is locked in a tight race with Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the Republican nominee, and an independent in Greg Orman who is fighting to gain ground on the front-runners.
Graves, who won two terms as governor, serving from 1995-2003, announced his support for Kelly in a video published online.
"The reason I’m doing that now is because I believe so much is at stake in the state of Kansas," Graves said.
He cited problems with education, health care, infrastructure and public safety that the next governor will have to solve.
"She has all the qualities and all the capabilities that we are looking for to lead the state during this difficult time and to reestablish the state to what it once was," Graves said.
He also said Kelly was the first Democrat he endorsed for public office. Graves supported several Democrats in legislative races two years ago, but the Kelly campaign clarified he was referring to statewide races. Nick Connors, the spokesman for Orman, said Graves was being deceptive.
The Orman campaign had scheduled a "significant" announcement for Tuesday afternoon but canceled the event after the Graves endorsement.
"The way to move forward is to move forward, not to look in the rear-view mirror," Connors said. "If you want Kris Kobach, you want to go back to 1910. If you want Laura Kelly, you want to take us back to 2002 and the start of the decline."
Kelly took office in the Legislature in 2005, two years after Graves left. She said she was humbled by his support.
"The challenges we face are great," Kelly said. "The only way we can rebuild Kansas is to bring people together to solve problems — that’s been my approach in the state Senate and that will be my approach as governor."
Two years ago, Graves returned to the political arena when he joined two former Democratic governors to advocate for justices facing a retention vote. Kobach and others branded Kansas Supreme Court justices as activists and supported their removal from the bench.
The Graves endorsement follows the announcement Friday that the Kansas State Council of Firefighters was backing Kobach — a rare endorsement of a Republican by the union.
"There are two committed liberal candidates in the race, and I am happy that Graves was able to choose one to support," said Danedri Herbert, the spokeswoman for Kobach. "Kansas Democrats have a tough choice to make on the first Tuesday of November."