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Why Jim Ward’s exit from Kansas governor’s race could help Democrats in 2018
House Minority Leader Jim Ward’s exit from the 2018 race for governor in Kansas came as a surprise to some observers, but not much of a surprise to those who were paying close attention to fundraising numbers.
Ward, a Wichita Democrat, had raised less than $100,000 at year’s end in 2017 — far less than Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, even though Kelly didn’t officially get into the race until late December, just days before the first campaign finance statements of the election season were due.
Kelly is now widely seen as the front-runner in the race, although she still faces challenges from former Agriculture Secretary and former Rep. Josh Svaty, of Ellsworth, and former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer.
But Ward's departure from the race, and his decision to seek re-election to his House seat, could actually end up helping Democrats in the long run, especially if one of the other Democrats in the race becomes governor.
That’s because one of the main duties of any caucus leader in the Legislature is to work toward growing the caucus — recruiting candidates, raising money statewide and helping campaign to get more party members elected to office.
In a phone interview Thursday, Ward said that was part of his calculations in deciding to get out of the governor’s race. But with only three weeks left before the June 1 filing deadline, that doesn’t leave a lot of time, and so far, Democrats haven't lined up all that many candidates to run for House seats.
As of Thursday, according to information on the Kansas Secretary of State's website, only 65 Democrats had officially filed to run for House seats — including 35 of the 40 incumbent Democrats who are running for re-election — and some districts have more than one Democratic candidate. Ward said he expects all 40 incumbent Democrats to file for re-election before the deadline.
All told, Democrats have officially filed in only 59 of the 125 districts in the House, including the 35 incumbents. That's far fewer than the 93 districts where Democrats fielded candidates in 2016, when they picked up 12 seats.
That means Democrats will have to field a lot more candidates if they hope to make significant gains this year, a year seen at the national level as a potential “wave” election year for Democrats, meaning the results could alter the balance of power in Washington.
In selecting the Republicans to target, Democrats will likely look at those in districts where Hillary Clinton carried the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election. An analysis by University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller identified seven of those.
At the top of the list is the 45th District in Lawrence and western Douglas County. That’s where Rep. Tom Sloan, a moderate Republican, is stepping down after 24 years in office. It’s also a district that Clinton carried with 59 percent of the vote.
Three Democrats have filed in that race: Steven X. Davis, of Lawrence; Lori Hutfles, also of Lawrence; and Aidan Loveland Koster, of Lecompton. No Republicans have yet filed in that district.
Other Democratic-leaning GOP districts may be harder for Democrats to pick up because they are currently held by moderate Republicans who tend to vote with Democrats on most, but not all, major issues. Those include 19th District Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, and 25th District Rep. Melissa Rooker, R-Fairway. Clayton is being challenged by Democrat Stephen Wyatt; Rooker so far does not have a challenger.
It's more likely that Democrats will focus their time and energy into districts where there would be more of a contrast between candidates.
One of those is the 30th District in southern Johnson County, where Democrat Matthew Calcara is lined up to challenge Rep. Randy Powell, a strong conservative in a district that Clinton carried narrowly, 48-45 percent.
Powell voted in favor of a controversial tax-cut bill that ultimately failed to pass the House on the final day of the session. He also voted in favor of a controversial bill dealing with faith-based child placement agencies. Both of those were issues that Democrats strongly opposed.
Ward said there are more than a dozen Democrats who have made verbal commitments to run but who have not yet filed, and he is continuing to try to recruit more candidates ahead of the June 1 filing deadline.