In a gubernatorial election that saw a crowded primary field, numerous visits to southwest Kansas by candidates from all parties, a Garden City connection to the state’s top independent ticket, and a close, contentious battle for the Republican nomination, Democrat Laura Kelly was the only candidate left standing after Election Day on Nov. 6.
Kansans awoke on Nov. 7 to a Kelly victory over Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach. The final results showed Kelly and running mate Lynn Rogers winning with 48 percent of the vote to Kobach and running mate Wink Hartman’s 43 percent. Greg Orman, an independent who selected Garden City state Sen. John Doll as his running mate, finished a distant third at 6.5 percent.
The 2018 Kansas gubernatorial featured intense campaigning and debate — including two primary and one general election forum in Garden City — amongst a crowded field of primary candidates that over time was whittled down to a handful of contenders. While Kelly won her party’s nomination easily in August, the GOP primary race between Kobach and Gov. Jeff Colyer was too close to call on election night and took a week to settle, with Colyer ultimately conceding the victory to Kobach by a mere 350 votes.
Then there was the question of how Independent Greg Orman and his running mate, Doll, would fare in the general election and how their candidacy would affect the race.
The campaign battle that ended with Kelly being elected Kansas’ next governor, and its ties to Garden City and the region, is The Telegram’s No. 3 local news story of 2018.
When the calendar turned to January 2018, the number of candidates for governor numbered in the teens, and included a few teenagers.
The top Republican candidates included then-Lt. Gov. Colyer, Kobach, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, former state legislators Mark Hutton, Jim Barnett and Ed O’Malley, and the businessman Hartman. The Democratic primary wasn’t as cluttered, but included Kelly, Rep. Jim Ward, former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and former agriculture secretary Josh Svaty.
Orman officially announced his Independent candidacy in January, then in March, selected former Garden City mayor and current state Sen. Doll as his running mate. In the process, Doll announced he was changing his party affiliation from Republican to Independent.
Addressing a crowd at the Clarion Inn in Garden City, Orman described Doll as a “strong and powerful voice for the things he cares about, for western Kansas, for creating new markets for our agriculture, for transportation policy, for public education, public safety, on all the things that he cares about deeply.”
Doll, whose political career included running for office as a Democrat and serving in the Statehouse as a Republican before switching to Independent in 2018, told the crowd that day that, “I’ve been known to switch parties. I was a Democrat and then a Republican. Parties never meant a lot.”
Ultimately, the switch cost Doll his committee positions, but he felt strongly about joining Orman's cause.
“If you study the candidates, I’m fairly confident that if you truly want the betterment of Kansas, that’s going to take us the right direction, Greg’s the answer,” Doll said in March.
Orman summed up his candidacy in an interview with the Topeka Capital-Journal.
“At the end of the day, me being politically independent is not about ideology. It’s about putting my state and my country ahead of a political party. It’s about using facts and common sense to solve problems, and not just clinging to rigid ideological solutions, even when they’re not working. And, importantly, it’s about being free from obligations to party bosses and special interests.”
But before Orman’s full presence in the election was felt, voters heard primarily from Republican and Democratic candidates in the lead-up to August’s primary election. And over time, the field began to shrink.
Hutton, O’Malley and Hartman all dropped out of the race, with Hartman eventually becoming Kobach’s running mate. Seven candidates remained on the primary ballot: Barnett, Colyer, Kobach, Selzer, as well as businessman Patrick Kucera of Overland Park, and teenagers Tyler Ruzich of Prairie Village and Joseph Tutera of Mission Hills.
The Garden City Area Chamber of Commerce organized and moderated a GOP candidate forum in July, with Barnett, Kobach, Selzer, Kucera, Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann representing the Colyer campaign.
A few weeks later, Kelly, Brewer, Svaty and teen candidate Jack Bergeson came to Garden City to participate in the Chamber’s Democratic debate.
While Kelly cruised to victory on Primary Election Night Aug. 7, the GOP nomination was too close to call between Colyer and Kobach.
Kobach agreed to surrender the duties of his office on Aug. 10 in answer to a letter from Colyer accusing the secretary of state of giving bad advice to counties that could suppress the vote and questioned how nearly 9,000 provisional ballots would be handled.
Kobach fired back.
“As governor of Kansas, your unrestrained rhetoric has the potential to undermine the public's confidence in the election process,” Kobach said. “May I suggest that you trust the people of Kansas have made the right decision at the polls and that our election officials will properly determine the result as they do in every election.”
Still, Kobach ultimately installed his top assistant, Eric Rucker, to oversee the vote counting as the Republican nomination hung in the balance.
Then, after a week of vote counting and political jabs between the two Republican frontrunners, Colyer conceded victory to Kobach on Aug. 14.
“The numbers are just not there, unless we were to go to extraordinary measures,” Colyer told the Topeka Capital-Journal. “But Kansas is too important. The people of Kansas are too important. Our children are too important. Tracey and I will not challenge this in court, nor will we be asking for a recount. Right here and now, we will endorse the winner, Kris Kobach.”
Kobach was equally gracious.
“...I want to thank Gov. Jeff Colyer for a race well run. He was a worthy opponent, and I thank him sincerely for his service to the state of Kansas," Kobach said. "I will work hard to advance our shared values.”
Once Kobach was declared the winner, attention shifted somewhat to Orman as the Democrats challenged his eligibility to be on the ballot, alleging that thousands of signatures on a petition the Orman campaign submitted to gain a spot on the ballot should be disallowed. But Orman ultimately preserved his position on the statewide ballot.
Throughout the late summer and early fall, the race focused on Kelly and Kobach throwing political jabs back and forth and what impact Orman would have on the race.
The trio came to Garden City in late October for one more candidate forum, hosted by the Chamber.
In the run-up to November, Kelly often pointed to Kobach’s divisive positions, his ties to President Donald Trump and concerns that Kobach would continue to push the failed policies of Gov. Sam Brownback.
“With Kris Kobach as governor, Kansans get all of the failed policies of Sam Brownback plus Kobach’s unique brand of hyper-partisanship and self-promotion,” Kelly told the Topeka Capital-Journal. “Quite simply, Kris Kobach is Sam Brownback on steroids, and that’s the last thing that Kansans need right now.”
Kobach, in a speech in August, countered against his two chief rivals.
"I don't think that Mr. Orman and his liberal supporters and Laura Kelly and her liberal supporters are going to be able at the end of the day to make the case to Kansans that Kansas should be a quasi-socialist, big government state," Kobach said.
Kelly was able to make the case to many former Republican lawmakers, including former Gov. Bill Graves, that she would be a better choice for governor than the GOP nominee as she received the endorsement of 28 former Republican lawmakers.
Just a week before the election, Tim Owens, a former Republican state senator serving as treasurer of Orman’s campaign, resigned and endorsed Kelly.
The same way she swayed former Republican leaders to her side, Kelly also convinced the majority of Kansas voters on Nov. 7.
“I’m so proud of everything we’ve accomplished together during this campaign,” Kelly told the Topeka Capital-Journal on Election Night. “It’s clear Kansans are ready to for a change.”
Contact Brett Riggs at email@example.com.