“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage”
“Henry V,” William Shakespeare
“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise.”
Warren G. Harding, 1920
The 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary promises to be the most fascinating in Kansas since 1876, when George Tobey Anthony overcame charges of war-time cowardice to secure the nomination. Not only does the race feature six formidable candidates, but who wins will tell us a great deal about what kind of future Republicans want: once more unto the breach or a return to normalcy?
The “once more unto the breach” candidate is Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Since the last open seat gubernatorial election in 2010, Kansans has seen state politics in a near-continuous pattern of political and policy experimentation, tumult and revolution under the direction of Gov. Sam Brownback and Kobach. Upon taking office, both successfully pushed new policies through the Kansas legislature that were very controversial. Both also promoted their policies as examples for the rest of the nation to follow. To various degrees their efforts met with national attention, court challenges, and criticism. Neither showed much inclination to back down or compromise rather than fight. The term “conservative firebrand” is often used for both.
Electorally, both Republicans have been very successful. Brownback won handily in 2010 and gained reelection in 2014 by nearly 5 percent, while Kobach’s victory margins as secretary of state average 20 percent. Yet there are some signs of disquiet in the last year. Republican moderates did well in the 2016 state legislative elections, even successfully overriding a Brownback veto in the 2017 legislative session. Brownback’s approval ratings are also not very good, averaging about 25 percent approval, and he has announced he’ll be leaving early to take a job in the Trump administration.
Kobach’s popularity is tougher to gauge. In the May, 2017 Kansas Speaks statewide public opinion poll put out by the Docking Institute at Ft. Hays State University, Kobach achieved 77 percent name recognition, by far the highest rating among the nine gubernatorial candidates on the list. However, he also received the lowest candidate favorability rating among those who knew him.
But looking at polls is an exercise in reading tea leaves, which makes the August 7, 2018, GOP primary seemingly the ultimate test of what kind of politics Kansas Republicans want going forward. With Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle announcing on Tuesday that she will not be running for governor, we now have our lineup of “return to normalcy” candidates set: Lt. Governor Jeff Colyer, Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer, 2006 nominee and former state senator Jim Barnett, Wichita businessman Wink Hartman, and former state legislator and CEO of the Kansas Leadership Center, Ed O’Malley.
This lineup is distinctive not only in the number of candidates but also in the variety of backgrounds and experience they represent. Simply put, along with Kobach, the Republican primary voters have an impressive field of candidates from which to choose.
And there lies the rub. This GOP primary has the looks of a seminal moment for the Kansas GOP, a choice between, to paraphrase Warren G. Harding, revolution or restoration, equipoise or experimentation. However, the high number and attractiveness of the candidates who are offering themselves as alternatives to Kobach makes it very possible that the vast majority of GOP voters could choose equipoise (“balance”) and instead get agitation. How? Well, with six strong candidates, 20 percent of the vote could win this primary. Fascinating indeed.
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka.