If Donald Trump is a shot of malted rye whiskey, then Ed O’Malley is a glass of cold milk.
Where Trump oozes backroom wheeler-dealer, O’Malley, a Republican who just announced his plans to explore a run for Kansas governor next year, screams a brand of 41-year-old fresh-faced earnestness not seen since Mr. Smith dashed off to Washington.
Of course, this raises a monumental question for the former two-term Roeland Park state lawmaker who has spent the last decade running the Wichita-based Kansas Leadership Center:
Can Mr. Wholesome score the highest office in Kansas in the age of Trump?
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And can he do it as a self-described moderate very much in the mold of former Gov. Bill Graves whose middle-of-the-road brand of moderation has been on the outs for more than a decade?
We’re about to find out.
O’Malley is the first of what could turn out to be a stampede of candidates from both parties eager to succeed Gov. Sam Brownback and set the state on a new path. His aim is to capitalize on the November wave that saw moderate Republicans and Democrats win seats, and conservatives who have ruled state politics since 2010 slide backwards.
If he stays in, he would give moderate Republicans their first legitimate candidate in years.
These days, O’Malley speaks in broad terms about the need for a governor “problem-solver” who can pull the right people together to sort out the state’s pressing problems, including ongoing budget deficits totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. Does the state need to raise taxes to regain financial stability? O’Malley won’t go there — not yet, anyway.
If Trump paints in bold hues, O’Malley dabs in pastels, a perennial problem for mods. He’s depending on thoughtful people to rally to his cause rather than igniting a populist movement in the manner of Trump. That ranks as the toughest of political tasks.
“Long term, if you want sustainable solutions to the really tough problems, all my experience tells me that you have to bring different viewpoints together and discover a collective way forward,” he told me.
That’s a far cry from Trump’s “build a wall” rhetoric. But it may be something a lot of Kansans are seeking following Brownback’s my-way-or-the-highway approach.
Skeptics — and O’Malley has a few — question his ability to form the type of broad coalition needed to win a governor’s race. He himself notes that he hails not from the ranks of statewide officeholders or members of Congress who typically fill the state’s chief executive’s chair, but from the nonprofit sector.
The leadership center, which brings Kansans together to build more prosperous communities, has a statewide network, but just how deep it is remains untested.
O’Malley needs a deep field chock full of conservatives who go after each other and leave him standing out there at center court. He needs money. And he’ll need a sharply defined stance or two to drive him home.
And if 100 percent whole-grain wholesomeness becomes the antidote to all things Trump in 2018, O’Malley could be the guy.