Welcome to Kansas election year 2018. An early look into the crystal ball of Kansas politics reveals that rural Republican voters will determine their party’s nominee for governor.
Rural votes tend to swing competitive gubernatorial primaries even though nearly half of all registered Republicans live in the five large urban counties—Douglas, Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee, and Wyandotte. Urban votes will be splintered among the seven creditable Republicans who have announced their intentions to run for governor. This voting pattern will likely repeat this year given that each of these seven candidates resides in one of the urban counties.
So, who among these urban candidates will sway rural Republicans in their direction?
Four Republicans—Lt. Governor Jeff Coyler, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, and 2006 gubernatorial nominee Jim Barnett—have experience in statewide contests and represent top-tier prospects.
Colyer has spent his professional career as a Johnson County physician but can lay claim to a rural upbringing in western Ellis County. He was elected twice to legislative seats in Johnson County before joining Brownback on the statewide ticket in 2010. In general elections, based largely on Brownback’s rural credentials, rural voters gave the Brownback/Colyer ticket an overwhelming margin in 2010 and a decisive but narrower victory in 2014. However, during his seven years in office Colyer has shown little independent connection with rural residents and will struggle to distinguish himself from the toxic Brownback brand.
Kobach chose Donald Trump, Jr., to headline his first major fundraiser and presumes to be President Trump’s anointed choice for governor. While Kobach hopes to capture Trump’s huge rural vote margin of 2016, his alliance with Trump has risks in rural Kansas. The President’s positions on immigration and trade are raising alarm among agricultural groups and businesses reliant on immigrant labor in beef, pork, and dairy operations. Further, the President’s threat to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement also places agricultural exports with top trading partners, Mexico and Canada, in jeopardy. Kobach leads the field in name recognition but also disapproval and has yet to show how he will maneuver through the chaos of Trump politics.
Barnett won a competitive, seven-candidate gubernatorial primary in 2006 but was defeated by incumbent Governor Sebelius in the general election. His vote margin in that primary was bolstered by strength in rural counties, winning most large rural counties and nearly half of the smaller rural counties. In contrast to his strident conservatism of 2006, as well as the stance of his competitors this year, Barnett has applauded the repeal of Brownback’s tax experiment and become a full-throated advocate of public school funding and Medicaid expansion. His campaign will test whether rural Republican voters, who dumped seven incumbent legislative allies of Brownback in the 2016 primary, will embrace a more centrist agenda.
Selzer prevailed in a competitive, five-candidate primary in his first and only race for state office in 2014. He won soundly in his home county of Johnson over two other Johnson County candidates, narrowly succeeded in Sedgwick County, and picked up wins in a scattering of western Kansas counties. Selzer has largely avoided hot-button issues or extreme positions, focusing his campaign instead on his professional background as a CPA, business experience, and family roots in central Kansas. He trails considerably in name recognition but has the potential to attract rural primary voters.
Three Wichitans—businessmen Mark Hutton and Wink Hartman plus nonprofit executive Ed O’Malley—complete the seven-candidate field. Each will claim a share of the urban vote but faces a tall order in persuading rural Republicans to join them.
My crystal ball shows: Kobach will fade; Colyer and Barnett will be forced to debate the Brownback legacy—Colyer defending, Barnett challenging; and Selzer may be a dark horse in the field.
H. Edward Flentje is professor emeritus at Wichita State University and formerly served with Kansas Governors Bennett and Hayden.