Kansas gubernatorial candidate Ed O’Malley came out swinging Tuesday at a campaign launch event in Overland Park.
The former Republican legislator from Johnson County, who for the last decade has served as president and CEO of the Wichita-based Kansas Leadership Center, swung for the policy fences by pledging that his primary goal as governor would be to make Kansas public schools the “best in the world.”
“That is not rhetoric, and that is not beyond our reach,” O’Malley said. “We can be known literally as the very best in the world. And it will fuel our economy for generations to come.”
O’Malley, who started in politics as an aide to former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves, also took some aggressive swings at one of his rivals for the Republican nomination, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, calling him a divisive candidate who is running for governor to further his national political ambitions.
“Let me be incredibly blunt,” he said. “Kris Kobach will divide us in order to try to win. And make no mistake, if he succeeds he’ll keep dividing us so he can win an even higher office.”
Kobach’s aggressive efforts to combat a voter fraud problem that many argue does not exist have made him a high-profile but controversial figure in Kansas and nationally. At his urging, Kansas legislators passed anti-fraud measures that among other things require new Kansas voters to provide proof of citizenship for state registration.
“Secretary Kobach is the only candidate for governor with a proven record of achieving conservative results,” wrote Samantha Poetter, Kobach’s campaign spokesperson, in an email response. “He led the effort to pass bipartisan election security reform through the Kansas legislature, which was supported by two-thirds of House Democrats and three-fourths of Senate Democrats.
“Kobach’s proven record of results show that he is ready to lead and fix Topeka’s problems,” Poetter wrote.
Plenty of candidates
O’Malley, 41, is the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to explicitly criticize Kobach, the perceived front-runner for the GOP nomination.
Reporters recently had to press Republican Mark Hutton, a former legislator and owner of a Wichita construction company, to acknowledge that he was referring to Kobach when he compared his pragmatic approach to that of candidates “with a little more of a grenade-throwing mentality.”
Even Democrat Josh Svaty hesitated before acknowledging that he was referring to Kobach when he said “a hyperpartisan bomb-thrower” would not be the best choice for Kansans wanting a problem-solver in the governor’s office.
Svaty represented Ellsworth in the Kansas House before former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius appointed him to head the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
Others competing for the Democratic nomination for governor are Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward and former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer.
In addition to O’Malley, Hutton and Kobach, the crowded Republican field includes Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, Wichita oil executive Wink Hartman and former Kansas Sen. Jim Barnett, a loser to Sebelius in the 2006 governor’s race.
Orman as independent?
Candidates in both parties are bracing for an expected announcement from Olathe businessman Greg Orman, who sources say will run as an independent.
Orman, who mounted a strong independent challenge to U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014, has done preliminary polling and is putting together a campaign staff, according to several sources who spoke on background.
“Based on my last conversation with him, I believe he’s going to run,” said one source. “But as far as I know, he hasn’t made a final decision.”
That decision is expected soon.
If he runs, Orman — a multimillionaire who sources say intends to self-fund his campaign — would appeal to the same moderate Republican voters whose support O’Malley, Barnett, Hutton or Selzer would need to capture the nomination over Kobach, the leading conservative in the race.
Perhaps anticipating Orman’s candidacy, O’Malley urged all who attended his Overland Park announcement to vote in the GOP primary.
“I need you to be registered as a Republican,” he said. “We have to win this primary election.”
The conventional wisdom among Kansas political observers is that if Kobach prevails in the primary, Orman running as an independent would increase Kobach’s chances of winning the general election with a solid bloc of conservative votes.
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to kcur.org.