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Kansas Democrats Face Primary Dilemma In Governor's Race

The Kansas Democratic party hasn’t had a gubernatorial primary since 1998. The unfamiliar competition this year is forcing Democrats across the state to wrestle with their identity ahead of the Aug. 7 election.

Should their nominee be a candidate who aligns strictly with the progressive ideals of the party platform, or someone with broader appeal? Do they go with experience and name recognition, or youthful exuberance?

Is that former big city mayor Carl Brewer of Wichita? Statehouse veteran Sen. Laura Kelly? Or a fresh face like former Kansas Agriculture Secretary and one-time legislator Josh Svaty?

At the Hutchinson Airport Steakhouse where they meet every month, the Reno County Democratic Women, a group of mostly older women, were still undecided about which way to go with just weeks until the primary. 

“I honestly have not made up my mind,” Sandra Gustafson said. “It’s a huge conflict.”

Gustafson is a self-proclaimed women's rights activist.

“At this point I’m really drawn between voting long-term convictions as a woman for right to choose and the woman candidate,” she said. “And I’m also very much concerned about the lack of new blood in the party and I’m very much attracted to Josh Svaty for that reason.”

Stretching the party platform

At a debate in Wichitain early June, Kelly, the only woman in the race, one-upped the 38-year-old Svaty, who’s 30 years her junior.

“I would veto any new restrictions on women’s reproductive rights," Svaty said to light applause.

Then Kelly, responding directly to him got a bigger cheer, “Kansas has almost nowhere else to go to restrict women’s access,” she said. “So to just say, I will veto any more, is not enough.”

Another split is gun control.

Brewer has challenged both Kelly and Svaty for having sided with the NRA in the Legislature, and he clipped their tit for tat on the subject from that June debate and other forums into a campaign ad.

"The NRA is not going to support me today and they’re not going to support me any other day because of my position on guns,” the former mayor said in June. 

The candidates all agree on pushing for greater access to healthcare and increased education spending — pillars of the party platform the women gathered in Hutchinson subscribe to. 

At the airport steakhouse, Bev Ooley described herself as a staunch Democrat, but, said she’s one who’d accept a Democrat with some conservative ideas, if it’s someone who can get people out to vote and win back the governor’s office. For her, that’s Svaty.

“I just like that he was young and exciting and knowledgeable,” she said. “He was just what I would think of a good candidate.”

A moderate in November

In Kansas, where voter registrations tilt heavily toward the Republican party, the Democrat has often played the moderate in gubernatorial elections.

“Democrats in Kansas are relatively in the middle just by definition,” said Kathleen Sebelius, the last Democrat to be elected governor.

Given that political dynamic, Sebelius  predicts it won’t be a “wild-eyed liberal” who emerges from the primary this year.

And, she said, as the GOP veers right, a coalition builder will have the best chance in November.

“Then you would attract 100 percent of the Democrats, a chunk of the independents and a slice of moderate Republicans. That’s the formula that elects a Democrat statewide,” said Sebelius, who was herself elected statewide four times as insurance commissioner and governor.

In 2018, Sebelius is supporting Senator Kelly.

Svaty has his own establishment backing from John Carlin, who was governor from 1979 to 1987.

New energy

It was also Svaty who generated the most of the excitement at the Kansas Young Democrats annual convention in early July. Several of the dozens in attendance said they were even volunteering for his campaign.

“He has the energy that we need to defeat someone, God forbid we face someone like Kris Kobach, he has the energy to take him on,” Nick Hinmanof Olathe said.

The few remaining undecideds at the convention in Lawrence said the intra-party disagreements would ultimately be good for the party.

“It’s giving people a chance to dream a little bigger than just having a Democrat,” said Elizabeth Fehr of Chanute. “We can talk more about the direction we’re going.”

Carving up the state

Shawnee County Democratic Party Chairwoman Ethel Edwards thinks most primary voters know the candidates not for their ideology, but because of geography.

“For Sedgwick County folks they’d say Carl Brewer. For Shawnee County folks they’ll say Laura Kelly, for western Kansas the Svaty folks will say Josh Svaty,” she said.

While the candidates are leaning into that —  Svaty has been playing up his rural roots, Brewer his two-terms as mayor of the state’s largest city, and Kelly her tenure in Topeka — the contested primary has also forced them outside of their usual stomping grounds.

Zach Worf, Democratic Party Chairman in Finney County, says western Kansas usually feels forgotten by politicians. He’s been happy to see that each one of the candidates running this year has come out to Garden City at least three or four times already.

“I will support whichever candidate has the best policies closest to lining up with me,” he said. “But understanding what that four- or five-hour drive feels like and knowing that there’s a whole ‘nother side of the state that they have to be aware of is super important.”

But appealing to western Kansans might not matter as much until the general election. More than half of registered Democrats live in either Johnson, Shawnee, Sedgwick, or Wyandotte county.

That math likely favors Kelly.

Brian Grimmett, based at KMUW in Wichita, is a reporter focusing on the environment and energy for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

Copyright 2020 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

I seek to find and tell interesting stories about how our environment shapes and impacts us. Climate change is a growing threat to all Kansans, both urban and rural, and I want to inform people about what they can expect, how it will change their daily lives and the ways in which people, corporations and governments are working to adapt. I also seek to hold utility companies accountable for their policy and ratemaking decisions. Email me at grimmett@kmuw.org.
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