Former Kansas lawmaker Josh Svaty has announced he will make a run for governor, setting up the first contested Democratic gubernatorial primary in Kansas in two decades. Courtesy photo
Former Kansas lawmaker Josh Svaty has announced he will make a run for governor, setting up the first contested Democratic gubernatorial primary in Kansas in two decades. Courtesy photo

Politics & Government

Former lawmaker Svaty running for governor, setting up Democratic primary

By Jonathan Shorman

jshorman@wichitaeagle.com

May 16, 2017 03:30 PM

UPDATED May 16, 2017 04:56 PM

TOPEKA

Former state representative Josh Svaty is running for governor, triggering the first contested Democratic gubernatorial primary in Kansas in two decades.

Svaty will face former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and possibly House Minority Leader Jim Ward, who is weighing a run. Svaty, from Ellsworth, said he knows how to connect with rural voters.

“Kansans don’t quit,” Svaty said. “My family has been farming in Kansas for 150 years, and there have been a lot of tough times. My wife and I started our own farm in Ellsworth County, and it hasn’t been easy.

“Like my family before me, we don’t quit and we don’t leave. We also don’t blame others for our tough times. The time for finger-pointing in Topeka is over, and the journey to reclaim Kansas begins today.”

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Democrats have chosen to coalesce around a single candidate for governor during the past several elections. The party hasn’t held a contested primary for governor since 1998, when Tom Sawyer entered the race to prevent Fred Phelps, the leader of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, from securing the nomination.

Svaty said this election is different than in the past, because Kansans recognize it offers an “inflection point” for the state.

“I don’t think a primary is a bad thing,” Svaty said, adding that it allows the party to see who can best raise the money needed to campaign in the general election and who can best organize campaign efforts.

Brewer said he is focused on reaching out to as many Kansans as possible.

“During the next several months, our campaign will travel to every corner of the state, listening to the concerns of Kansans and offering new leadership to get our great state back on track,” Brewer said.

Ward said through a spokeswoman that he would not comment.

Splitting the vote

Chapman Rackaway, a political scientist at Fort Hays State University, said if Brewer and Ward are both in the race, the two Wichita Democrats may actually boost Svaty’s chances.

“You’ve got Brewer and Ward splitting up the Sedgwick County Democrats, and that might open things up for Svaty,” Rackaway said.

In the Democratic primary, Svaty will likely face questions about his anti-abortion voting record as a member of the Kansas House.

“My voting record is what it is,” Svaty said. “And it reflects the deep respect and affection I have for the 108th District, which is an overwhelmingly pro-life district.

“Like many Kansans, I believe I am right down the middle on this issue.”

Svaty said he knows that the issue of abortion tends to dominate Kansas elections, but he thinks the focus should remain on the state’s finances, schools and quality-of-life issues.

Rackaway said Svaty’s abortion stance would hurt him in the primary, but if he makes it through to the general election, his voting record will help neutralize GOP attacks on the issue.

“If forced right now, I’d say that Svaty has the better chance of competing in a general than Brewer does,” Rackaway said. “I believe that because he has been a state legislator and a federal official; he’s going to have more access to money. From what I’ve seen of Brewer, he doesn’t have the same level of charisma as Svaty does. I think that Svaty on the stump will be exceedingly effective.”

Lobbyist work

Svaty’s wife, Kimberly, works as a lobbyist for the city of Wichita and for groups that represent the wind energy industry and the horse track racing industry.

She said if her husband is elected governor, she may have to shift away from lobbying work.

“I’m not interested in doing anything would raise any eyebrows,” she said, explaining that a large portion of her business, Gencur Svaty Public Affairs, has nothing to do with lobbying.

Josh Svaty was raised on a farm near Ellsworth and was elected to the Kansas House when he was 22. He served from 2003 to 2009. He was state secretary of agriculture under Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson.

Svaty was also a senior adviser in the Environmental Protection Agency and was the vice president of the Land Institute, an agricultural nonprofit.

Brewer launched his gubernatorial bid in February. Ward has said he has been approached about a run and will decide after the session.

On the Republican side, Wichita businessman Wink Hartman has announced a bid for governor, and entrepreneur Ed O’Malley is exploring a run. Several other Republican officials are also weighing bids, including Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder.

Contributing: Bryan Lowry of the Kansas City Star

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman