Opinion: What’s a lieutenant governor for?

The Kansas Constitution requires all gubernatorial nominees to run on a ticket with their lieutenant governor nominees. Much more fanfare has surrounded the process this year than it has in the past. Why?

The state Constitution and recent history do make one thing clear: The next lieutenant governor may become governor someday. Current Gov. Jeff Colyer was elected as lieutenant governor on a ticket with Sam Brownback, then became governor when Brownback resigned for his new ambassador job. Former Gov. Mark Parkinson took over when Kathleen Sebelius resigned to join the Obama Administration. In neighboring Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson was elected lieutenant governor on a separate ticket, then became governor when Eric Greitens resigned due to scandals.

Parkinson made critical policy decisions during the Great Recession and also brokered a compromise on the Sunflower Electric Plant that included renewable energy portfolios — quite a record for a two-year governorship. Colyer and Parson are now providing calm hands at the tiller, following tumultuous times under their very different predecessors.

Does all this matter politically, though? This year’s candidates seem to think it does. Political scientists are not buying it.

The most popular trend is to balance the ticket with a running mate from a different part of the state. Consider these candidate pairings:

• Jeff Colyer, Johnson County; Tracey Mann- Gove County.

• Kris Kobach, Douglas County; Wink Hartman, Wichita.

• Ken Selzer, Johnson County; Jenifer Sanderson, Goodland.

• Laura Kelly, Topeka; Lynn Rogers, Wichita.

• Carl Brewer, Wichita; Chris Morrow, Johnson County.

• Greg Orman, Johnson County; John Doll, Garden City.

Two candidates do not fit this region-balancing pattern. Under fire for his anti-abortion votes, Democrat Josh Svaty chose Katrina Lewison, of Manhattan, who is pro-choice. Republican Jim Barnett chose his own wife, former foreign service officer Rosie Hansen.

There are other factors, too. A wealthy businessman, Hartman is helping Kobach raise money. Sanderson and Lewison are business professionals who have never before sought nor held elected office. Morrow is a Democratic mayor from a heavily Republican suburb. Doll switched his affiliation from Republican to Independent for the run, while Lewison went from Independent to Democrat. Lewison is also a decorated Army combat veteran.

Alas, if U.S. vice-presidential politics is any guide, none of this is likely to matter.

Political scientists cannot find any significant relationship in our data, between vice presidential picks and presidential election outcomes. Presidential elections come down to factors like incumbent popularity and the state of the economy — unless the country is also in an unpopular war like Korea or Vietnam.

For example, Hillary Clinton’s VP nominee, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, of Virginia, touted his Kansas-Missouri roots during the campaign. Kaine grew up in Overland Park, attending high school in Kansas City, Mo. His campaign stops and trips home did not help; Kansas and Missouri both went for Trump-Pence.

Another example occurred in 1988, when George H.W. Bush nominated the gaffe-prone Dan Quayle for VP. Quayle’s Democratic opponent, U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, of Texas, had a double-digit lead in the polls. In the end, however, the Bush-Quayle ticket defeated Dukakis-Bentsen decisively, giving Quayle four years to keep late-night comedians busy.

Back at the state level, the lieutenant governor is usually eclipsed not only by the governor but also by other elected state executives like the attorney general and the secretary of state. In fact, some states do not even have lieutenant governors, while others elect them separately from the governor.

These lieutenant governor nominees will probably not sway the election, but take heed: The winner may indeed become governor someday.

— Michael Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected from a previous version that misidentified Sen. Tim Kaine.


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