Topeka House Speaker Doug Mays on Wednesday dropped out of the race for the Republican Party nomination for governor, throwing open the primary and further solidifying Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' credentials as tough to beat in 2006.
Mays, 55, a veteran legislator from Topeka, said he bowed out because he didn't want the backdrop of a political race to interfere with his work during the legislative session that starts Jan. 9.
"It would be unfortunate if gubernatorial politics were to stand in the way of sound policy. That, I fear, would be the case if I were to continue as a candidate," Mays said in a written statement.
Mays joined a long list of Republicans who thought about challenging Sebelius, but then decided against it. That group includes U.S. Reps. Jim Ryun, who represents western Lawrence, and Jerry Moran, of Hays, Atty. Gen. Phill Kline, Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh, State Treasurer Lynn Jenkins, and state Senate Majority Leader Derek Schmidt, of Independence.
The Kansas Democratic Party had a one-sentence reaction to Mays' decision.
"Any candidate would have a hard time matching up with a governor who has done so much for Kansas," the statement said.
With nine months until the Republican Party primary, state GOP leader Tim Shallenburger has a gubernatorial field with little statewide name recognition. The candidates so far are state Sen. Jim Barnett, of Emporia, former House Speaker Robin Jennison, of Healy, and two perennial candidates, Dennis Hawver, of Ozawkie and Richard Rodewald, of Lawrence.
"The dynamics of the primary have now changed," Shallenburger said of Mays' departure.
"Most of us probably felt he was the frontrunner in the Republican Party primary. Other candidates who are running will have to fill the void or someone else will fill it for them," he said.
The Republican candidates are now state Sen. Jim Barnett, of Emporia, former House Speaker Robin Jennison, of Healy, and two perennial candidates, Dennis Hawver, of Ozawkie, and Richard Rodewald, of Lawrence.
Shallenburger said possibly some high-profile businessmen, whom he wouldn't name, may enter the race. He said Ken Canfield, founder of the National Center for Fathering, has expressed interest, too.
Shallenburger, who lost to Sebelius in the 2002 governor's election, said Sebelius could be defeated next year but that it would be tough.
"She is not unbeatable, but she also is not the walking wounded," he said.
Despite an overwhelming Republican advantage in voter registration, Sebelius has been able to appeal to moderate Republicans in addition to securing Democratic voters.
Infighting among Republicans flared up again in recent days with anti-abortion activists calling for Shallenburger to step down because he has accepted GOP candidates who support a woman's right to an abortion.
Reaction to decision
Meanwhile, across the state, Republicans praised Mays and said the party needed to stop fighting itself.
"He has been agonizing about a rough legislative session, and being torn between a governor's race and what we have to do to get through the session," state Rep. Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, said.
O'Neal added, "Republicans need to have a reason to vote for a Republican candidate."
Barnett, who is running in the primary, said Mays' decision "reflects the quality of the public servant that he is."
Barnett said he and his announced lieutenant governor running mate, state Sen. Susan Wagle, of Wichita, will continue in the primary.
"There is no question in my mind but that we are in this until the end," he said.
Jennison said Mays would have been a solid candidate.
"He would have had a lot of things to say during the campaign," he said.
For his part, Mays also said he would not seek re-election to the House. He has been in the Legislature since 1993 and speaker since 2003.
Mays has been a leading conservative voice in the Legislature and earlier this year blasted the Kansas Supreme Court's order for more funding of public schools.
He has been frequently at odds with Sebelius and unsuccessfully pushed for a constitutional amendment that would have limited the court's authority.
Asked to comment on Mays dropping out: Sebelius' office put out the following statement: "Governor Sebelius is visiting our Kansas troops in the Middle East. She takes her job as commander in chief of the Kansas National Guard and as governor very seriously. She will continue working for the people of Kansas."