A crowded race for the Republican nomination for Kansas' next governor has candidates looking for ways to stand out.
At a forum held over the weekend in Wichita, the hopefuls signaled how they hope to separate themselves from the field.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach wants primary voters to see him as the true conservative in the contest.
“If you want to see full-throttled conservatism in Kansas, then I’m your man,” Kobach told a near-capacity crowd at the state GOP convention. “We will go full speed ahead.”
He used a question about property taxes to employ the sort of provocative language that have marked his career, and the campaign in front of him now. Kobach said “stealth” increases in the assessments on his Douglas County farm had made him and his wife “slave farmers.”
“We are growing our crops for Kansas and not ourselves,” he said, claiming it takes nearly all of their relatively small farm income to pay the taxes.
Gov. Jeff Colyer is Kobach’s main rival for the nomination, according to the most recent public poll on the race. He had the flu and sat out the Saturday debate.
The other, lesser-known candidates pitched themselves as successful business leaders who could bring order to a state government in turmoil.
Willis “Wink” Hartman, a Wichita oil and restaurant businessman who so far has loaned his campaign $1.6 million, said he’s ready to lead a turnaround in Topeka.
“Kansas needs and deserves a CEO with 50 years of experience with multiple companies that have all been successful and have grown,” Hartman said. He lost to eventual winner Mike Pompeo in the 2010 Republican primary in the 4th Congressional District.
But Mark Hutton, the founder of a Wichita-based construction company and a former legislator, wouldn’t concede that ground. He said he brings something to the table that Hartman doesn’t: Statehouse experience.
“I’m the only candidate up here that has 25 years of CEO experience from the ground up building a company … coupled with four years of legislative experience and, more importantly, the relationships that are going to be necessary to move Kansas forward,” Hutton said.
During his four years in the Kansas House, Hutton compiled a conservative voting record but also earned a reputation for independence as one of the first Republicans to call for a rollback of then-Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax cuts.
Kansas Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer billed himself as a “thoughtful, calm decision-maker,” perhaps in contrast to Kobach’s more combative leadership style. Repeatedly sounding practiced themes, Selzer promised to “lean in” to the job of reining in spending and growing the Kansas economy.
“We are going to make Kansas grow again,” Selzer said. “Remember that.”
Former state Sen. Jim Barnett watched from the sidelines, barred from the stage by party officials for refusing to sign rules of participation that he said amounted to censorship.
“I’m not going to sign what I think is a debate agreement that is against democracy and the principles of this country,” Barnett said. “I would have spoken the truth and we didn’t hear that tonight. … What we heard tonight was a return to the Brownback/Colyer policies that took our state down to its knees.”
Rather than calling for reduced spending, smaller government and putting the Kansas Supreme Court in its place on the school funding issue, Barnett said he would have advocated for increased education funding and for expanding Medicaid eligibility to an additional 150,000 low-income Kansans.
Barnett was the party’s gubernatorial nominee in 2006 but lost to Democratic former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
The candidates who participated – Kobach and Hutton in particular – took a hard line on the school funding issue. They insisted it’s the Legislature’s job to decide what’s appropriate, not the court.
“We have to clear up this constitutional amendment issue and tell the Supreme Court -- the Sebelius Supreme Court -- to butt out,” Hutton said.
Kobach cautioned GOP voters against buying the “fake argument” made by supporters of Medicaid expansion that it would help struggling rural hospitals.
“Unfortunately, there are some Republicans who haven’t got the message yet,” he said.
A recent poll by Remington Research Group, a GOP consulting company, showed Kobach and Colyer running neck-and-neck in the early going. Colyer held a 23 percent to 21 percent lead. Barnett was a distant third at 8 percent, followed by Hutton and Hartman at 5 percent each and Selzer at 3 percent.
The tilt-to-the-right tone of the debate scored well with the Republicans who came from around the state for the convention. Retired Wichita teacher Elaine Fisher agreed with attacks on the Kansas Supreme Court over school funding.
“We need to get away from judges controlling how much money the state has to pay for education,” she said.
But the assault on the state’s high court didn’t resonate with everyone. Bill Clifford, a Garden City ophthalmologist and chair of the Finney County Republican Party, says what works in the convention hall may not work with the cross-section of voters needed to win.
“We have a much broader voting population out there,” the western Kansas Republican said. “All the candidates need to touch that group that wasn’t present in the building tonight.”
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and KCUR covering health, education and politics in Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @jmcleanks.