A crowded field of candidates running for governor in Kansas gained its first woman Friday with the entry of state Sen. Laura Kelly.
Kelly, 67, who has represented a Topeka district in the Kansas Senate since 2005, has been an outspoken critic of Gov. Sam Brownback. As the top Democrat on the Senate’s budget-writing committee, Kelly has been particularly critical of the income tax cuts that Brownback said would revitalize the Kansas economy, which instead sent state revenues plummeting and triggered years of budget instability.
“I have watched the Brownback folks totally mismanage the state for the last seven years, and I can’t stay on the sidelines and let Brownback-like folks lead for the next four years,” Kelly said, referencing some candidates in the Republican field, which includes conservatives Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
The 2017 Legislature repealed most of the Brownback tax cuts. But Kobach, whom many view as the front-runner for the GOP nomination, has said he would attempt to reinstate them if elected.
As the top Democrat on the joint legislative committee that oversees KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program, Kelly recently announced her opposition to a Brownback administration plan to renew it for another five years. Doing so would unfairly saddle the next governor with a program that continues to generate complaints from providers and patients about increased red tape and reductions in services, she said.
“We have lots and lots of KanCare recipients or their guardians coming to us with concerns about services that they need but are not getting,” she said.
Kelly is the fourth candidate to enter the race for the Democratic nomination, joining House Minority Leader Jim Ward, former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and former state Rep. Josh Svaty.
Svaty, who also headed the Kansas Department of Agriculture under former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, welcomed Kelly to the race but said he would be a better statewide candidate.
“This doesn’t change the ultimate objective for Kansas Democrats, which is to identify the best nominee who can defeat Kris Kobach next November,” Svaty said in a prepared statement issued as the news of Kelly’s candidacy was breaking. “I am the only Democrat that can win votes in every corner of this state.”
Weighing in on Twitter, University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said Svaty’s appeal in rural areas of the state could help him in the Democratic primary but that Kelly is potentially the stronger general election candidate. Though, he said the recent entry of independent Greg Orman lessens the chance that any Democrat could win.
But, my 2 cents: a Kelly entry could fundamentally change the dynamic in the D primary. She could be the strongest in the D field for the general if she gains traction. But that math with Orman is hard for him & the D, & advantages the R still. Do other people get in this race?
— Patrick Miller (@pmiller1693) December 15, 2017
In addition to Kobach and Colyer, the crowded field for the GOP nomination includes former Kansas House members Ed O’Malley and Mark Hutton, former state Sen. Jim Barnett, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer and Wichita businessman Wink Hartman.
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.