Laura Kelly upends Democratic race for governor

State Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, jumped into Kansas’ 2018 gubernatorial race late last week and immediately became the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination, according to some outside observers, sending a strong message to the other three major candidates that party leaders were not confident that any of them could win a general election.

Kelly, who is 67, was first elected to the Senate in 2004, when she narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Dave Jackson in a hard-fought election that was decided by fewer than 100 votes. She has been re-elected three times since then, most recently in 2016 when Jackson tried to win back his old seat, this time losing by 931 votes.

Kelly is known primarily as a centrist Democrat, one who is fiscally conservative but more liberal on social issues. She comes from the upscale Potwin neighborhood in Topeka, but her district includes much more conservative areas of northern Shawnee County as well as parts of Pottawatomie and Wabaunsee counties.

It is widely reported within political circles that she was urged to get into the race by party leaders, including former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, also a former Potwin resident, as well as a number of major donors and fundraisers in the party.

That may have came as something of a slap in the face to the other major candidates who have already spent months on the campaign trail, although none of them said so directly.

“Kansans deserve a vigorous debate about the future of our state. I welcome Laura to the race, and look forward to continuing to put my vision in front of the voters,” House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, said in an email.

Until Kelly got in the race, Ward had been seen as the front-runner, if only because he was the only candidate currently holding elected public office.

Another Democratic candidate had this to say: “I welcome Senator Kelly into the race for Governor of Kansas and look forward to her joining the discussion about the future of our state,” former Rep. Josh Svaty, of Ellsworth, said in a statement to news outlets. “This doesn’t change the ultimate objective for Kansas Democrats, which is to identify the best nominee who can defeat Kris Kobach next November.”

Secretary of State Kobach is widely seen as the leading contender in the Republican race, but he faces competition from a number of other GOP heavyweights, including Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, former Sen. Jim Barnett, former Rep. Mark Hutton and former Rep. Ed O’Mallley, to name just some of them.

Also running on the Democratic side is former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer.

University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis said Kelly brings a number of assets to the table that will make her highly competitive, starting with the fact that she is the first woman to enter the race that currently includes 24 men who have formed campaign committees.

She’s also the only major Democratic candidate from northeast Kansas. That’s critical for any Democrat to win a statewide election in Kansas because the Kansas City-Lawrence-Topeka-Manhattan corridor contains nearly half of all the Democratic voters in the state.

Kelly’s candidacy may have another big impact on the race overall. According to Loomis, she may eliminate any chance of independent candidate Greg Orman from becoming a spoiler in the general election.

Orman ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2014, getting 43 percent of the vote against incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. But that was a race in which the Democratic candidate Chad Taylor withdrew early on, leaving Orman as the only viable contender.

On a county and precinct level, though, Orman’s performance largely mirrored that of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis, indicating that they both drew from the same pool of Democratic, independent and moderate Republican voters. But if Kelly emerges as the Democratic nominee, Loomis said, that could close off any opportunity Orman might have to draw away those same voters.

So far, there has been no public polling in the governor’s race, and there is no public indication of how much money they’re raising because the first campaign finance reports aren’t due until Jan. 10, showing how much they raised in all of 2017.

When those reports do come out, though, everyone will be looking to see if Kelly raised enough in the last two and a half weeks of the year to make her competitive with those who have been campaigning since the summer. If she does, that may make her very difficult to beat in the Democratic primary.