Former Kansas Governor Bill Graves issued a statement today endorsing Democratic state senator Laura Kelly over the GOP candidate Kris Kobach.
Graves, who served as governor from 1995 to 2003, says that Kelly is the first Democrat he has endorsed for statewide office. The Kansas City Star quotes the statement, “Laura Kelly is the only Democrat I have ever endorsed for public office. And the reason I’m doing that now is because I believe so much is at stake in the state of Kansas. I have known Laura for over thirty years. She has all the qualities and all the capabilities that we are looking for to lead the state during this difficult time and to reestablish the state to what it once was.”
Naturally the state GOP was none to pleased. In an email, the party blasted Graves, accusing him of being one of “the defenders of the Topeka status quo [who] are quivering in their loafers.”
“This banded effort is a clear sign to voters that Kris Kobach is the candidate of change,” the party said.
The endorsement comes roughly two weeks after House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from Dighton, wrote an email to more than two dozen of his fellow centrists to discourage them from taking a public stance on anyone other than Kobach, the party’s standard bearer.
In the email, Hineman warned that support for Orman or Kelly “could well be a career-ending move for anyone who chose to do so.”
A spokeswoman for the Kobach campaign doubled down on the candidate’s criticism of both candidates as liberal after the endorsment was made public.
“There are two committed liberal candidates in the race, and I am happy that Graves was able to choose one to support. Kansas Democrats have a tough choice to make on the first Tuesday of November,” Kobach spokeswoman Danedri Herbert said.
Orman’s campaign tried to frame Graves’ endorsement for Kelly as a step backward.
“It’s back to the future with Laura Kelly,” the Orman campaign said in a statement. “The way to move forward is to move forward. Not to look in the rear view mirror. If you want Kris Kobach, you want to go back to 1910. If you want Laura Kelly, you want to take us back to 2002 and the start of the decline.”
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, called the Graves endorsement “a big deal.”
A number of moderate Republicans endorsed Democrat Paul Davis in his challenge of then-Gov. Sam Brownback in 2014, Beatty said, but none on the level of Graves.
“No matter what, the former governor who had the highest vote percentage of any governor in Kansas history, to endorse someone from the other party is pretty significant,” Beatty said.
Rep. Hineman is correct. Any sitting GOP lawmaker who endorses the Democrat should lose all party backing and financial assistance. Graves is not likely to run for anything else, however, and his endorsement of Kelly will hurt.
The Kansas GOP has a history of independent thinkers running for office and the moderate strain of Republicanism is alive and well in the state. It’s hard to know how Graves’ endorsement will be received by Kansas voters, although he was very popular during his time in office.
Sam Brownback was a disaster as governor and it scrambled the GOP in the state as several moderate candidates defeated conservatives in the 2016 primaries. The party is a split down the middle as demonstrated by the gubernatorial primary contest. Kobach barely squeaked by incumbent governor Jeff Coyler to win the GOP nomination while Kelly cruised to a 30-point win in the Democratic contest.
Graves’ endorsement is not a death blow to Kobach’s campaign but it is likely to further split the Kansas state party at at time when unity is essential for victory.