Jan. 26, 2018 — Two events occurred two days ago that drastically changed the Kansas gubernatorial race.
First, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) won confirmation as President Trump’s ambassador-at large for International Religious Freedom and will soon be resigning as Kansas’ chief executive to accept his new position. Gov. Brownback barely passed muster in the Senate, a body in which he served 14 years before being elected governor in 2010. Vice President Mike Pence was called into the Senate chamber to break the 49-49 confirmation deadlock.
The move means that Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer (R), already a candidate for the state’s top post, will be ascending to the governorship by the end of this week. Colyer will become the fourth Republican lieutenant governor who will be running for governor as an unelected incumbent. Govs. Kay Ivey (R-Alabama), Kim Reynolds (R-Iowa), and Henry McMaster (R-South Carolina) are the other three who became governor last year when the individual elected in 2014 either left under an ethical cloud (Alabama) or accepted a Trump Administration appointment (Iowa; South Carolina; and now Kansas).
Second, Republicans also received good news over a development that could decimate the Democrat’s opportunity of running a viable general election campaign. Wealthy Independent Greg Orman, who challenged Sen. Pat Roberts (R) in 2014 and actually became the de facto Democratic nominee (he lost 53-42 percent), officially announced he will enter the governor’s campaign and as a non-affiliated candidate.
This time, with a Democratic nominee on the statewide ballot, Orman will cut directly into that party’s base vote and undoubtedly will rob the eventual Dem candidate of liberal base voters. On the other hand, Orman’s strength as a candidate could put him in position to be a viable contender if he captures a strong majority of Democratic votes and Republican turnout tanks. Because of the Kansas Republicans’ dominance, odds of a candidate other than their own winning under this type of configuration, however, become very long at best.
The Kansas gubernatorial race does have redistricting ramifications. Republicans currently hold all four of the state’s congressional districts, including a pair of seats that could trend into marginal territory anchored in Kansas City and Topeka. Should a Democrat gain the governor’s mansion – the last one to win here was Kathleen Sebelius in 2002 and 2006 — the chances of a gubernatorial veto threat leading to a map that concedes one seat to the Dems would have realistic potential.
The Republican field now obviously changes greatly as Colyer will now be the incumbent. He faces Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, businessman Wink Hartman, and eight others including four high school students. In a new three-way configuration before an electorate that strongly breaks Republican, the eventual GOP nominee will become the strong favorite to hold the seat in November.
For Democrats, former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and ex-state Agriculture Secretary Josh Svaty lead a field of seven total candidates, but the nomination victory will now be greatly diminished with Orman’s presence on the general election ballot.
The Kansas candidate filing deadline is not until June 1 for a primary scheduled Aug. 7. Therefore, much time remains for this race to define itself. As an aside, the Independent candidate filing deadline is not until August, so observers can rest assured that the Democratic leadership will attempt to make some deal with Orman to either get him either out of the race or somehow into the Democratic fold in order to prevent the unfavorable three-way general election alignment.
The Kansas governor’s race will be yet another interesting 2018 political campaign.