Archive for Monday, May 18, 2009

Democrats still have no clear front-runner for 2010

May 18, 2009

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— Gov. Mark Parkinson filled a hole in his administration when he picked a new lieutenant governor, but he didn’t help fellow Democrats fill a big hole in their election ticket for 2010.

Parkinson’s choice of Troy Findley, his chief of staff, made sense to legislators and others on some levels, of course.

As the governor’s chief of staff since July 2005, Findley has been involved in major policies pursued by Parkinson and his predecessor, Kathleen Sebelius. Because Findley is keeping the chief of staff’s job, he’s certain to remain loyal and not overshadow the governor.

But Findley announced immediately that, like Parkinson, he won’t run for office in 2010. Thus, Parkinson’s decision cost Democrats one of their limited opportunities to position someone for the race.

The decision isn’t fatal to Democrats’ hopes of retaining the governor’s office, given that nearly 18 months remain before the November 2010 general election. But Kansas Democrats have lost their biggest star; the person many of them saw as Sebelius’ heir is taking a pass, and they’re still waiting for someone to publicly announce an interest in the governor’s race.

“I have felt like their bench is not very deep,” said House Speaker Mike O’Neal, a Hutchinson Republican. “There just aren’t that many people who are surfacing.”

Red + blue

Sebelius victories in the 2002 and 2006 governor’s race encouraged Democrats to see Kansas as a “purple” state. The theory is that a shift to the political center among voters mixed a long-standing red Republican history with blue Democratic successes.

Parkinson was a small piece of the equation. He is a former Kansas Republican Party chairman who switched parties to run on Sebelius’ re-election ticket in 2006.

But Sebelius, her strong political skills and her ability to raise oodles of money were crucial ingredients. She resigned as governor April 28 to become U.S. secretary of health and human services, a move that made many Kansans proud but undermined Democrats’ 2010 ticket.

And Parkinson has undermined that ticket twice in five months.

As a term-limited governor, Sebelius was Democrats’ best candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Sam Brownback, who’s running for governor rather than seeking another term. Many Democrats saw Parkinson as their leading gubernatorial candidate.

Parkinson announced in January that he wouldn’t run for governor. After being elevated to governor when Sebelius resigned, he said finding a strong gubernatorial candidate wasn’t his priority in picking a lieutenant governor. He followed through by picking Findley.

Democrats say they’re not worried about next year’s elections.

“There are some people who are looking at running for that office in the Democratic Party right now who I think will be very, very strong candidates,” House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said after Findley’s appointment.

But such conversations with Democrats all seem to end the same way when reporters press for names.

“I’m not at a point where I can divulge the names of those people right now,” Davis said.

GOP strength

Meanwhile, the GOP has two candidates who have run multiple statewide elections: Brownback and Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh.

Yet members of both parties acknowledge there are reasons to avoid making the lieutenant governor’s office the launching pad for a campaign for governor.

Parkinson came into office saying he wanted to solve the state’s financial problems, rebuild its economy and enact sound energy policy. Having a gubernatorial candidate as lieutenant governor would give Republicans a political incentive to sabotage his program.

And a Parkinson protege might not be universally accepted as the Democrats’ presumed nominee. That was the case with Parkinson himself, with relatively conservative Democrats pushing for Dennis McKinney, the former House minority leader now serving as state treasurer.

“The governor has said repeatedly that he has things he wants to accomplish, and I suppose if he had to pick one potential candidate over another, it would have made it more difficult for him to herd the cats,” said Senate Minority Leader Derek Schmidt, an Independence Republican.

Democrats also note that Sebelius didn’t kick off her first campaign for governor until February 2002.

But Sebelius had raised nearly $629,000 for her campaign in 2001, and many Democrats had treated her as their presumed nominee for several years. She also was a two-term insurance commissioner at the time.

Brownback and Thornburgh already are raising money, and both have been building campaign organizations. A Democratic hopeful, especially one who hasn’t run a previous statewide race, faces a lot of work just to catch up.

That means Parkinson’s decision to appoint Findley as lieutenant governor puts Kansas another step closer to having a Republican governor again when Parkinson leaves office.

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