By John Celock
A Democratic Kansas state senator has announced plans to campaign for a Republican state House candidate who is challenging a Republican lawmaker in the GOP primary.
State Sen. Laura Kelly (D-Topeka) confirmed to The Celock Report on Monday that she intends to campaign for Republican state House candidate Fred Patton in two Shawnee County communities, Silver Lake and Willard. Kelly first made the revelation on Patton’s Facebook page on May 6. Patton, a local school board member, is challenging Rep. Josh Powell (R-Topeka) in the August GOP primary in the heavily Republican district.
Kelly told The Celock Report that she has “always been a moderate and I’ve always worked with other moderates to get good policies passed” as the basis for her support for Patton. Patton’s challenge of Powell, a first term conservative lawmaker, is a continuation of the moderate vs. conservative civil war that has dominated the Kansas Republican Party in recent years.
Kelly said that given the current political landscape in the Sunflower State, party labels are not as important. With the GOP dominance in the district, she could see the GOP primary being the only action.
“Things are in such a way in Kansas right now that we have to ignore party lines and work together. The same thing is happening in the gubernatorial race where Democrats, moderate Republicans and independents are forming coalitions to get the word out,” Kelly said. “I’ve known Fred Patton for a very long time. We don’t have a Democrat candidate in that race and I wont be surprised if we don’t. The issue comes down to the primary. Those are my constituents and I want them well represented in the Senate and the House.”
Both Silver Lake and Willard are within Kelly’s Senate district. Kelly is not up for reelection until 2016.
Kelly was referencing a coalition of moderate Republicans, led by former U.S. Sen. Sheila Frahm (R) and former state Rep. William Kassebaum (R-Burdick), who are backing presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis over Gov. Sam Brownback (R) in November. The moderate coalition assembled partially out of opposition to the conservative GOP wing helmed by Brownback. In addition former Republican state Sen. Jean Schodorf of Wichita has left the GOP and is the presumptive Democratic nominee against Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) this year.
Powell told The Celock Report that he is surprised that Kelly has chosen to get involved in a Republican primary. He also took issue with Kelly’s description of herself as a moderate, noting that he considers her a liberal.
“It is a surprise to me,” Powell said. “I don’t get involved in Democratic primaries and I don’t know that Republicans do.”
Powell indicated that he thinks that Kelly’s plan will backfire with local Republicans not wanting a Democrat involved in the party’s internal business.
While Kelly’s indication that she was planning to campaign for Patton was posted on Facebook last week, Patton said he told The Celock Report that he was surprised by the support. He said though he is hoping to assemble a coalition behind his candidacy.
“I didn’t realize she was endorsing me,” Patton said.
This is not Patton’s first foray into gauging Democratic support. He posted on Facebook on May 8 that “it’s very simple” Democrats can become Republicans by early June in order to vote in the August primary. State lawmakers recently changed the deadline in an attempt to reduce party switching.
Patton indicated though that he believes he can win with Republicans alone.
Kansas Republican Party executive director Clayton Barker told The Celock Report that while it is legal for voters to switch between parties for the purposes of primary voting, the GOP does not support it. He noted the recently passed law as a way to reducing the practice. In terms of Kelly’s backing of Patton, he said it could become an issue with voters.
The state GOP does not take sides in primaries, but Barker noted that the party will back whoever wins.
Kansas Democratic Party spokesman Dakota Loomis said that the party’s position on Kelly’s endorsement was that she and other legislators have the right to make up their own minds on who to back. In terms of Patton’s potential recruitment, he stressed that the KDP is backing efforts to make voting easier in the state.
The primary between Powell and Patton is considered one of he most competitive primaries in the state, based on the ideological differences between the two candidates. In addition, Powell’s endorsement of Republican U.S. Senate primary challenger Milton Wolf over U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R) has added an additional layer of internal GOP politics to the primary battle.
Patton, a long time community leader, is seeking to use his ties to various community groups to ride to victory, while Powell is pointing towards his conservative voting record.
While Kelly’s campaigning for Patton could give her a chance to meet with moderate Republican voters within her Senate district, she said that helping her own 2016 political prospects was not part of the calculation.
“I hadn’t even thought about that honestly. I am not kidding around,” she said. “I have won three races for my Senate seat including the last one where everything including the kitchen sink was thrown at me. I have a very good relationship with my constituents. I have never been elected by Democrats alone. It has always been my way of representing the district is to reach out to all people regardless of party.”