Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Handicapping the Kansas Governor's Race

Back to blogging? Well, I'll try.

So a little over a week ago, the day before Governor Brownback's final State of the State address, I gamed out some possibilities for Kansas's 2018 gubernatorial race on Facebook. The post attracted a fair amount of attention, and let to a couple of long private conversations with some campaign insiders. I'm posting an updated version of my post here, adjusted some things I've learned and by the latest campaign fund-raising numbers, which were released just a couple of days after my original post.

1) The longer Sam Brownback remains as governor--meaning the longer the Republican leaders in Congress fail to take a simple vote on his nomination to an put-him-out-to-pasture ambassadorship--the harder it will probably be for any Republican gubernatorial hopeful who isn't Secretary of State Kris Kobach to put together a financially and electorally successful coalition of "of-course-I-reject-Brownback-but-of-course-I-embrace-the-Kansas-Republican-majority" GOP primary voters.

2) Why doesn't Kobach have to thread such a needle? Because his name recognition and his small-but-disproportionately-powerful-and-well-connected base of GOP true believers (not just in Kansas, but among Trump-supporters and immigration-bashers across the country) make him the prohibitive favorite for the nomination already, especially assuming a large and divided field, and in particular if Brownback remains governor for weeks (or months?) more to come, forcing all of his other Republican competitors (with the possible exception of Wink Hartman, who is essentially self-funding and will appeal to the libertarian faithful and probably no one else) to dance among each other while he focuses on winning the general. His comparatively low campaign fund-raising numbers thus probably worries Kobach only a little; through his association with President Trump, his talk radio show, and his constant inserting of himself into battles over voter rights across the country, his narrative--one which is guaranteed to be persuasive among at least one segment of Kansas Republican voters--has been set.

3) Kobach being chosen as the GOP nominee is probably Greg Orman's only actually plausible route to the governor's mansion as an independent candidate. To win the governorship, he will need to capture both Democratic voters (which will be a much harder proposition in 2018 than it was when he ran, without any Democratic competition, against Republican Senator Pat Roberts in 2014, but ultimately probably not all that hard; being a young, moderate, self-made millionaire will always appeal to some) and, more importantly, Republican voters. Why more important? Because there is simply no evidence I am aware of which plausibly suggests that there are enough actually "independent" (however you define that) voters in the state of Kansas to carry him to victory, even if he also won every single vote cast by Democrats. State-wide, registered Republican voters often outnumber registered Democratic voters by 2-to-1, which means his winning over GOP voters is crucial. (Might we have a repeat of 2014 with the Democratic candidate pulling out? That seems to me astonishingly unlikely, given the rise of activism and energy among Kansas Democrats since Trump's election, to say nothing of the excitement of the blue wave that has been slowly building for Democrats all through 2017).

4) In other words, if the polarizing, extreme, no-daylight-between-me-and-Trump Kobach is the GOP nominee, then Orman just might, perhaps, have a real shot of picking up enough alientated segments of the Republican electorate in November.

5) Which puts the ball in the Democrats' court. The Kansas Democratic party may yet be years away from fully shifting in a metropolitan, diverse, progressive/populist direction, but it has definitely at least begun to do so; James Thompson's win back in March of the Democratic to run in the special election over Dennis McKinney, who as a perfect example of a traditional, socially moderate/conservative, rural-based, New-Deal-appealing Kansas Democrat, proves that. All of which means that if former Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Josh Svaty gets the nomination, who hues to that old model at least insofar as his religious opposition to abortion rights is concerned, then part of the state Democratic base will likely fracture at least slightly, even despite the momentum which the nomination of Kobach will inspire locally. The pro-choice Orman would be the obvious beneficiary of any such fracturing, assuming he reaches out to the right women's groups and says the right things (which he surely would; I think he's politically naive, but he's definitely not politically stupid).

6) That means you're going to see some Kansas Democratic activists playing some three-level chess if Svaty seems to be hanging on in the run-up to the convention over the next few months. (Which he might: more than one local Democratic insider has pointed out to me the decent number of millennial activists, who played a big role in Thompson getting his nomination, who are trumpeting Svaty's youth, as well as the fact that he seems to be taking the Sanders approach when it comes to fund-raising; he had the greatest number of small individual donations of any candidate, Republican or Democrat, who reported.) The question they'll ask themselves is simply: do they want to stop Kobach more (which an Orman win would do), or want to elect a Democratic governor more, especially if the unlikelihood of that, thanks to a nominee with little name recognition and with a divisive impact on the party, was increasing? I could easily see Orman managing to poach for his team a number of prominent Democrats if Svaty seems capable of capturing the nomination.

7) But such three-level chess won't only happen among some Democrats in the (I think ridiculously unlikely) case of Svaty going all the way. Every serious Democrat knows the registration disadvantage in Kansas, and every one of them knows that none of the alternatives for the Democratic nomination--former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer, Kansas state senator Laura Kelly, and Kansas state representative Jim Ward--can remotely compete with Kobach's name recognition. (Fox News watchers from Idaho or Indonesia know the man, for heaven's sake.) They also know Orman has the money to make the run, and thus they know Democratic vote poaching will happen no matter what they try to do. And finally, they will also know that, among Republicans who don't like Kobach, Orman will, on average, have a much better shot of grabbing them than any Democratic candidate would, for all the usual partisan tribal reasons. So which gubernatorial candidate, they may think to themselves, will best be able to control the bleeding and do some triangulation in a three-way race that will likely be Kobach vs. Orman vs. a Democrat? (Obviously if Kobach's people fail to carry him through to the nomination, and the GOP gubernatorial nominee turns out to be an establishment Brownback-clone like current-Lt. Governor Jeff Colyer, this calculation will change...though perhaps not that much. Though if the Republican primary electorate somehow, bizarrely, actually manages to nominate a moderate without ties to either the Brownback legacy or the exciting-but-distasteful-to-many Kobach machine--say Kansas Leadership Center president Ed O'Malley, another relatively young man who is wildly popular among Wichita's donor class--then not only does this whole calculation get thrown out the window, but both the Democrats and Orman might as well just call it good and head home.)

8) Wasn't all this Orman-inspired angst--in the midst of what, in the wake of the unpopular Brownback administration and facing the polarizing Kobach juggernaut, was supposed to be year of hope for state Democrats--going to be avoided by Kelly's late entrance to the race? Her fund-raising numbers support that: after announcing only a month ago, and having to report her donations after only two weeks, she had still out-raised both Ward and Brewer. More than a few observers declared her the prohibitive Democratic nominee the day she announced, and with good reason; after all, she's from northeast Kansas (it has been more than a half-century since either state party had a successful flag-bearer who wasn't part of the Lawrence-Topeka-Kansas City nexus), and she has former governor Kathleen Sebelius--and her donor list--on her side. But worries remain. Her name recognition is minuscule (less than half of either Ward's or Brewer's). And her getting into the race so late smacks of...well, of a bunch of people getting desperate, fearful that the wrong candidate will result in the Democrats losing their best shot at the governor's mansion in years. Ward, despite his tireless efforts on behalf of the Democratic party and progressive causes, has a personal history that will likely make at least some Democratic donors and activists leery, with their memories of how 2014 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis was treated (one meeting with a client at a bar/strip-club = Davis, lifetime pimp and pornographer) driving them to aforementioned game of three-level chess. And Brewer?

9) Well, here is where my somewhat adjusted predictions come into play. Moving from the city level to the state level (or higher) of government makes good sense in terms of policy experience; less so in matters of politics. For better or worse, voters think about local and city politics differently than they do about the much more partisan levels of politics above that. And here in Kansas, especially in terms of trying to organize a financially and electorally plausible route to a major party nomination and then a general election win, while being from Wichita (which is already often seen as conservative also-ran city by many state Democrats) as opposed to being from metropolitan Kansas City poses...well, some image problems. Still, Brewer was basically a successful mayor of the state's largest regional economic urban engine, and as a consequence--and given the fact that the Wichita media market has far more penetration throughout the state than anything from the northeast corner--he has more positive name recognition than any of his Democratic competitors. Yes, his fundraising numbers have been terrible, but there have also been shake-ups in the campaign to get things going...and more importantly, Brewer's strongest financial basis will likely be, frankly, moderate Wichita professionals and business-people, and so long as there's a shot that an O'Malley, or even an establishment Republican like Colyer, could win the nomination, many of them will be keeping their pocketbooks closed.

10) So, my conclusion? So long as Orman moves forward with his plan for a no-holds-barred run, and so long as Kobach seems on track to be carried over the finish line to the Republican nomination (likely against the wishes of at least a few major figures in the Kansas GOP) by his devoted fans, you'll eventually see certain Democratic players and donors looking more and more at Brewer. Why? Because despite not having the same organization or base of support that Kelly and Svaty and Ward all do, and despite being from the wrong part of the state, he has two things going for him. First, there is very little evidence that any remotely sizable portion of the Democratic base would be turned off by his candidacy (and the fact that it was apparently African-American turnout that made the difference in Doug Jones's recent election in Alabama will not be lost on the people who seriously contribute to the local Democratic party, I think). Second, his leadership record, because he's been out of state politics, will lack the sort of red flags which might prevent a disaffected moderate Kansas Republican who really doesn't want to vote for Kobach from considering the Democratic alternative, and turning to Orman first. (And that goes double, obviously, for moderate Kansas business-people who liked and worked with Brewer in Wichita, and basically don't have any problems with Democratic priorities, but could be scared away from donating to his campaign by anything that looks, or could be painted as, too extreme.)

11) Long story short? I wonder if perhaps the single greatest variable as to whether or not the state of Kansas might actually elect not just a Democratic governor (we've had those), but a black governor (we've never had one--in fact, so far as I've been able to discover, no African-American has ever been elected to any state-wide office in the entire history of Kansas), is whether or not Trump and the Republican majority in DC, in whose hands Brownback's nomination rests, continue to be a bunch of Keystone Kops, thus Kobach's path to the Kansas GOP gubernatorial nomination through a crowded, divided field that much more likely.

Okay everyone, have at me.

5 comments:

Douglas Johnston said...

Fascinating.

Matt said...

Is it a detriment at all for Kobach that he's a flat out white supremacist, and doesn't really try to hide it? I hope that's not an attraction to too many, but, well, Kansas, I guess.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Well, sure it's a detriment, Matt--in the sense that it is Kobach's anti-immigrant paranoia and his barely concealed white identity politics which makes him toxic for some Republicans, thus opening up a return, post-Brownback, to the traditional moderate Republican-conservative Republican split. And his extremism in this regard also helps fire up the opposition. But do you mean "detriment" in the sense that the Republican party wouldn't dare nominate him? There are a lot of Republicans who didn't want to nominate Trump, and condemned this way and that, yet most of them voted for him in the end, right? Those of us on the left here in Kansas have to anticipate the same.

reilloc said...

So, Carl Brewer, eh, on the Dem side? Can I take this to the bank?

Russell Arben Fox said...

I never encourage wagering, Reilloc.