The Overlooked Power Spots On The Ballot In Kansas On Tuesday
The fact that seemingly everyone and his wife are gunning for the Kansas political major league, the governor’s office, has opened up all four spots in state’s lesser statewide offices.
The other four statewide elected offices in Kansas — attorney general, insurance commissioner, treasurer and secretary of state — are up for grabs. Only one incumbent who’s previously been elected to his current office is running this time around.
All four offices also have both Republican and Democratic candidates, not always a given in Republican-leaning Kansas.
The secretary of state and insurance commissioner, both without incumbents as those offices’ current occupants vie for the highest office, have contested Republican primaries. Sitting attorney general Derek Schmidt doesn’t have a challenge until the general election, while state Treasurer Jake LaTurner is angling to win the office outright after being appointed by then-Gov. Sam Brownback last year.
On Tuesday, the primary offers the first real test of campaign season.
Secretary of State
The secretary of state is Kansas’ top election official. The office runs elections and voter registration and helps regulate lobbying and campaign finance.
In 2015, Kobach won added power, making Kansas the only state where a secretary of state can take legal action against fraudulent voters. The secretary also oversees a range of business entities and operations, from registering trademarks to regulating funeral homes.
With Kobach moving on, five Republicans are running against each other to face the lone Democrat in the race. This story from Celia Llopis-Jepsen outlines the GOP candidates — Scott Schwab, Dennis Taylor, Keith Esau, Craig McCullah and Randy Duncan — and their experience. Former tech executive Brian McClendon, who put Kansas at the center of Google Earth, is the Democrat.
The office hasn’t gone to a Democrat since 1949. Left-leaning Kansans are hoping a combination of the outgoing Kobach’s unpopularity with some voters and energy behind Democratic campaigns nationally and locally might help McClendon break that streak.
McClendon comes with a lot of financial firepower. He contributed a little more than a quarter of the $509,000 his campaign has raised so far, and was able to draw on wealthy donors from Silicon Valley to help fill out the rest.
Kansas’ chief insurance officer regulates and reviews insurance companies in the state, licenses insurance agents, and helps consumers navigate the insurance marketplace. The insurance commissioner’s ability to go after insurance companies who violate Kansas laws about what they can cover helped thrust it to “the top of (Kansans for Life’s) cards,” said Mary Kay Culp, the anti-abortion group’s executive director.
Current assistant insurance commissioner Clark Shultz, who lost the top job to Ken Selzer in 2014, is trying again. His campaign website says he’s a “Kansas conservative to his roots.” Culp said her organization appreciated Shultz going after insurance companies that paid for abortion-related services. Private insurers are not permitted to cover abortions under their comprehensive health plans in Kansas unless the mother’s life is in danger. Shultz, in a campaign radio ad, played up his anti-abortion bona fides.
What has been perhaps the biggest factor putting the insurance commissioner’s race in Kansans for Life’s crosshairs, though, is Shultz’s opponent. Vicki Schmidt is a moderate Republican senator from Topeka who chairs several Senate committees, including Public Health and Welfare and the Child Welfare System Task Force.
One of her votes as a senator particularly rubbed Culp and Kansans for Life the wrong way — in 2015, Schmidt was the only Republican senator to vote against a bill banning dilation and evacuation abortions, the most common procedure for second trimester abortions.
Schmidt is touting her 40 years of health care experience as a practicing pharmacist, as well as her legislative work to expand Medicaid, in TV ads.
Both Schmidt and Shultz have emphasized the importance of bringing more insurance companies to Kansas, to give consumers more options and make prices more competitive. When Selzer was sworn in in 2015, he also said he wanted to attract more insurers to the state.
In recent years, the office of the insurance commissioner has been a springboard to higher office. Kathleen Sebelius served two terms as insurance commissioner before taking over as governor in 2003.
Current attorney general Derek Schmidt is the lone Republican candidate to be Kansas’ top lawyer, after performance artist Vermin Supreme’s candidacy was quashed by the State Elections Board.
Schmidt was elected attorney general in 2010. His two terms have been dominated by the Kansas Supreme Court case over whether the state is adequately and equitably funding its schools. The attorney general is responsible for arguing on behalf of whatever school funding formula the Legislature passes.
Schmidt has called for putting a constitutional amendment to keep the courts out of school funding to a public vote.
His Democratic challenger is Lawrence attorney Sarah Swain, though she lost her party’s support over a poster in her law office depicting Wonder Woman with a lasso around a police officer’s neck. Swain told KSHB-TV that the poster shows a superhero “using the lasso to force the truth from the mouth of a police officer, a metaphor for the rigors of cross-examination.” She said it was misconstrued by the Kansas State Trooper Association and others who called for her to withdraw from the race.
The attorney general’s office oversees the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, handles compensation for crime victims, facilitates the Child Death Review Board, and otherwise investigates and litigates on behalf of the state.
Jake LaTurner took over as treasurer last year after Rep. Ron Estes (not to be confused with Ron M. Estes) was elected to fill Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s fourth district seat.
Both LaTurner and his Democratic opponent, Marci Francisco, get to skip the primaries, as both are running unopposed to represent their respective parties.
Before Brownback tapped LaTurner for treasurer, the former aide to retiring U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins was considered a frontrunner to replace her. Without him, though, the 2nd District isn’t wanting for Republican candidates — seven Republicans are lining up to face Democrat Paul Davis in the general election.
As a state senator from southeast Kansas, LaTurner was an outspoken advocate for improvements to U.S. Highway 69, which connects southeast Kansas to Kansas City.
The Kansas Department of Transportation was scheduled to expand the 20-mile stretch of U.S. 69 between Pittsburg and Fort Scott to four lanes with a median in 2016, but it was one of many projects delayed later that year as highway funds were used to balance the budget. After Turner’s objections, including an open letter to Brownback, a portion of the expansion was restored.
As he gears up for his first statewide election, LaTurner is highlighting his increased social media outreach as treasurer, and his efforts to connect the more than $6.9 million in unclaimed property in the treasurer’s office with the Kansans it belongs to.
Francisco, too, would come to the treasurer’s office from the state senate. She’s served in the Legislature since 2005, representing a district that covers part of Lawrence and points north. She’s also a former mayor of Lawrence.
Francisco had planned to run for secretary of state, forming a campaign committee in mid-December before switching to the treasurer’s race in May at the request of the Kansas Democratic party.
Francisco has also highlighted the importance of the unclaimed property program, and suggested that the office add an option for Kansans to donate their unclaimed property to charity.
The Kansas state treasurer is custodian of Kansas’ cash, handles municipal bonds, and otherwise helps the state operate by handling its banking, investing, and cash management.
Note: An earlier version of this story listed the wrong office for Jake LaTurner.
Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.
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