Brownback confirmation hearing set for Oct. 4, setting stage for his resignation

Gov. Sam Brownback speaks with reporters outside the Kansas Statehouse.

Topeka — Gov. Sam Brownback will appear before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, Oct. 4, for a confirmation hearing on his nomination to be U.S. Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.

Brownback confirmed that date while speaking with reporters outside the Statehouse Wednesday.

A former senator himself, Brownback is a familiar name on Capitol Hill, but he said he is not assuming the confirmation process will be easy.

“I would not say that. I don’t know,” he said. “This is a topic I worked on a lot. I helped carry the first bill (establishing the ambassadorship) in 1998. I’ve worked on these issues around the world with minority faiths.”

Once he is confirmed by the full Senate, Brownback said, he will resign from office, elevating Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer to become the next governor in the midst of a hotly contested Republican primary race.

Colyer himself has had a more visible presence around the state in recent weeks as he prepares to assume office, and then run for a full four-year term of his own in 2018. But his appearances have largely been photo ops, such as an event last weekend in Andover where he tossed the coin before a high school football game. He told reporters, though, that he’s ready to take over whenever he is called.

“That’s the job of a lieutenant governor. You always have to be ready,” Colyer said. “We’re working very hard on where we’re going, what we’re doing. We’re listening and working with a lot of different people, and you’ll be hearing about it over the next few months or next few weeks.”

The race for the GOP nomination in 2018 has already drawn a crowded field. And although Colyer concedes that his is not yet a household name, Brownback’s resignation will give him several months in the spotlight, including the chance to govern during a legislative session, and give him the status of the incumbent in the August 2018 primary.

One of his biggest challenges, though, will be to separate himself from Brownback, who, according to public opinion polls, has one of the lowest public approval ratings within his own state of any governor in the country. That’s a task that won’t be easy, given his close ties to Brownback and the strong loyalty he has shown the governor over the last seven years.

“I’m Jeff Colyer. I’m going to be working very hard for Kansas,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that we get things done. It’s going to be stable. We’re going to be very collaborative. We’re going to work with people, and people know where I’m coming from.”

Colyer, a plastic surgeon from Johnson County, has been involved in politics in eastern Kansas and at the national level for many years. He served a White House fellowship during President Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s, and also was an aide to former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.

In 2002, he ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination to the 3rd District congressional seat. He served one term in the Kansas House, 2007-2009, and half a term in the Kansas Senate before he was tapped in 2010 to be Brownback’s running mate.

Outside of Johnson County, however, he is less well known. A statewide survey by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University showed only about 32 percent of those surveyed have heard of him. That compares to a 77 percent name recognition factor for Secretary of State Kris Kobach, another leading candidate in the GOP gubernatorial race.

Republican field

Also running on the Republican side are Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, former Sen. Jim Barnett, Wichita businessman Willis “Wink” Hartman, and former Rep. Mark Hutton of Wichita.

Former Rep. Ed O’Malley, who now lives in Wichita, has formed an exploratory committee but has not yet formally announced he is running.

Hutton is another candidate who is trying to build up his own visibility. The founder of a construction company that bears his name, but which is now run by his son, he served two terms in the Kansas House before deciding not to seek re-election in 2016.

As part of that effort, Hutton visited the media offices in the Kansas Statehouse this week to get reaquainted with reporters and share his story. Among other things, he said, he expects the Republican field to contract between now and the August primary, with some candidates dropping out and others pairing up together as a ticket, so that eventually there will be only three main candidates. Presumably those would be himself, Kobach and Colyer.

Hutton said he is less ideological than Brownback, Colyer or Kobach and that if elected, his goal would simply be to manage the state competently.

“You get a businessman that started a company from nothing and managed it, that will manage this state just like a CEO would, who goes to the problems and doesn’t wait for them to blow up in front of him, and manages from a perspective of bringing people together, removing barriers to good discussion, so that collectively we can come up with solutions,” Hutton said.

Democratic field

Hutton is not the only lower-profile candidate in the race who is trying to raise his visibility. On the Democratic side, former Rep. and former Agriculture Secretary Josh Svaty just completed a 105-county tour of the state where he attempted to introduce himself to Kansans.

Svaty, who is 37 and a native of Ellsworth, served three and a half terms in the Kansas House, from 2003 to 2009, a time when he was one of the youngest members of the Legislature. He also was elected as a Democrat in a district where Republicans hold a two-to-one advantage over Democrats in voter registration.

He stepped down when Gov. Mark Parkinson named him Secretary of Agriculture but has not been active in Kansas politics since leaving that job seven years ago when Brownback came into office.

During a Statehouse news conference Wednesday, Svaty said one of his strengths is that he is a Democrat who lives west of U.S. Highway 81, the unofficial dividing line between eastern and western Kansas. But it’s also a fact that most Democratic voters in Kansas live in the Kansas City-Lawrence-Topeka-Manhattan corridor, and in the Wichita area.

Svaty, however, said his rural roots are what set him apart from other Democrats in the race. And he said it’s an asset that the Kansas Democratic Party in general needs badly.

“If you were to use Gov. (Kathleen) Sebelius’ maps of her victories in 2002 and 2006, you would actually see broad county support across the state,” he said. “She won upward of 20 or more counties in the big 1st Congressional District in western Kansas, so I actually challenge the notion that winning as a Democrat is first and foremost about winning the urban parts of the state. I would argue that one of the reasons Democrats may have stuggled in the last few election cycles is that, if you look at how they’re winning or losing in the rural parts of the state, it’s by margins of 75-25 (percent), or in some cases 80-20 (percent).”

Svaty is up against the sitting House Minority Leader, Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita, as well as former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer in the Democratic primary.