Republican Jeff Colyer is scheduled to be sworn in Wednesday afternoon, moving from lieutenant governor to replace outgoing GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who is stepping down for an ambassador's post. Colyer's supporters believe he'll now be free to distance himself from his unpopular predecessor in what is already a wild race for governor this year.
Democrats doubt it, given Colyer's seven years as Brownback's loyal No. 2. Instead, a big issue for them is whether Kansas City-area businessman Greg Orman's campaign for governor as an independent siphons enough votes from the Democratic nominee to allow even an unpopular Republican to win.
"He's going to pull votes from the Democratic side," said Tom Witt, a party activist and executive director of the LGBT-rights group Equality Kansas. "It would be more challenging for a Democratic candidate in a three-way race."
Colyer, a 57-year-old physician who does both cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, launched his campaign for a full, four-year term as governor last summer, shortly after President Donald Trump nominated Brownback as ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The race for governor has more than 20 prospective candidates, including a dozen Republicans.
Brownback already was term-limited after winning re-election in 2014. His popularity waned as state budget problems persisted following aggressive income tax cuts he championed in 2012 and 2013. Legislators rolled back most of those cuts last year.
"It's hard to escape the very real sentiment that most Kansans have that it's time to move on from this administration," said former state Agriculture Secretary Joshua Svaty, one of the four leading Democratic candidates for governor.
Colyer's supporters contend that as governor, he is likely to distance himself from Brownback by giving his administration a more open, approachable tone. It's not clear whether Colyer will significantly break with Brownback's policies.
"But I think he'll do things different," said state Rep. Dan Hawkins, a conservative Wichita Republican backing Colyer. Colyer faces a tough challenge on the right from Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the former vice chairman of Trump's now-disbanded commission on voter fraud. Kobach, who has a solid base among conservatives, sees himself as the race's fiscal hawk and is criticizing a plan from Brownback to boost spending on public schools and rely only on growing revenues to cover it.
"He will have to defend it now," Kobach said of Colyer. Democrats see both Colyer and Kobach as far-right conservatives who are likely to alienate GOP moderates and unaffiliated voters. Orman strongly disputes arguments that he's destined only to help the GOP nominee. He said many voters affiliated with both parties are unhappy and ready for a nonpartisan problem solver, giving him a clear path to victory down the political center.
He said during a recent interview that many discontented voters continue to pick partisan nominees at the polls because there's no independent with "a viable pathway to win" and people want their votes to matter.
Orman is giving what he describes as a campaign kickoff speech Wednesday evening in the Kansas City area — only hours after Colyer is sworn in. Orman received national attention in 2014 for running as an independent challenger to Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and receiving nearly 43 percent of the vote after the Democratic nominee dropped out.
In considering Democrats' angst, he said, "Why is that my problem?" "If for some reason the idea of more choices for voters appears to be bad for one party or the other, you know, I think that just means they need better candidates," he said.
Some Democratic legislators contend Orman's influence on the race depends on who emerges from both primaries. Another leading Democratic contender, state Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, said even with Orman in the race against her, "We'll be fine."
Yet other Democrats worry about Colyer remaining governor or Kobach succeeding him if Orman makes a strong enough showing. "He has the potential to be the spoiler," said Democratic state Rep. John Carmichael, of Wichita.
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