Archive for Monday, March 4, 2002

Sebelius invokes GOP themes

March 4, 2002

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— Some Democrats have considered Insurance Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius their likely nominee for governor for a year, but she started her campaign by invoking traditionally Republican themes.

She suggested last week that significant waste still exists in government. She said in her first campaign speech that she will be a governor who understands that private industry  not government  creates jobs.

She even said public schools ought to have "character education" classes to teach basic values of honesty and citizenship.

And she echoed State Treasurer Tim Shallenburger, who is seeking the Republican nomination, in declaring that the debate about solving the state's budget problems should start with cuts in spending.

Sebelius is a Democrat in a state where Republicans historically dominate politics, and to win the Nov. 5 general election she needs support from GOP voters and independents who lean Republican. She has the luxury of being able to woo Republicans early.

"The whole goal of a campaign is putting together 50-plus percent of the electorate," said U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, a Democrat who represents Kansas' Republican-dominated 3rd Congressional District. During the 1998 campaign, many Johnson County yards in the district sprouted signs for both Moore and the moderate Republican Graves.

No challenge expected

Sebelius opened her campaign last week with rallies in eight cities, after months being treated by fellow Democrats as though she had already won the nomination. Democrats do not expect her to face a serious challenge in the Aug. 6 primary.

At 53, she is serving her second term as insurance commissioner, having ousted Republican incumbent Ron Todd in 1994. She won with 59 percent of the vote then  and again in 1998  and started this year with about $550,000 in her gubernatorial campaign fund, more than any other candidate.

But she is a Democrat, running to replace a retiring Republican governor. While Democrats have sometimes defeated unpopular GOP incumbents, no Kansas Democrat has followed a retiring Republican governor since Walter Huxman was elected in 1936 to succeed Alf Landon.

"It's tough for any Democrat to run and win a statewide office, let alone governor," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.

Democrats start with a handicap in Kansas politics. With 721,000 registered voters affiliating themselves with the GOP, Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 282,000.

Which party?

So perhaps it's not surprising that much of Sebelius' early message sounds like the rhetoric coming from the GOP candidates  Shallenburger, Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall and Wichita Mayor Bob Knight.

Because of the state's budget problems, reporters have asked all of them whether they would support tax increases.

Stovall said she'd support only Graves' proposed 65-cents-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax, but more as a public health measure than a revenue-raiser.

Knight has said strengthening the state's economy will take care of the problem.

Shallenburger is touring the state throughout March to spread the message that he won't support any tax increase statewide.

And Sebelius?

She told reporters that when she became commissioner, she discovered that the Insurance Department had three employees who guarded a vault full of paper, but nothing worth stealing. She noted that she stopped the practice and has cut her department's operating expenditures.

She did not talk, as Democratic legislators are talking now, of protecting education and social services and then finding the funding  even if it requires taxes increases.

'The silent majority'

Nor did she mention her 1992 vote as a Kansas House member for a school finance law that increased sales and income taxes to lower local property taxes and raise additional money for education.

"I'm fighting to rein in government spending, reduce regulations and lower the cost of doing business here in Kansas, to get our economy moving and growing," she said last week. "As governor, I'll root out inefficiencies, wasteful spending and unnecessary regulations across state government."

Moore said Sebelius must find themes that cut across party lines to win, as he must in the 3rd District. That means talking about financial responsibility, he said.

Invoking a Republican president's memory, Hensley said: "That's what you have to do, appeal to  what was the term Richard Nixon used?  the silent majority."

Without a primary opponent, Sebelius doesn't have to worry about placating Democrats to advance to the general election.

"It's a good strategy," said Rep. Doug Mays, R-Topeka. "Without a primary, she has the luxury of running to the right."

Voters can expect Sebelius to sound a lot like a Republican for a while.

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