Where are the women? Tracing the decline of female candidates in Kansas

Kansas has a history of electing women to positions of power, but women are noticeably absent from the crowded race for governor. This video includes photos from the Associated Press and music "The Army's March" by MMFFF/CC BY 4.0.
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Kansas has a history of electing women to positions of power, but women are noticeably absent from the crowded race for governor. This video includes photos from the Associated Press and music "The Army's March" by MMFFF/CC BY 4.0.
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Government & Politics

Where are the women? Crowded field for Kansas governor is one big men’s club

By Bryan Lowry

blowry@kcstar.com

September 20, 2017 07:00 AM

The more than a dozen candidates seeking the Kansas governor’s mansion in 2018 span the political spectrum and range in age from 16 to 71, but they all have one thing in common.

They’re all men.

Kansas has previously elected two female governors and was the first state to elect a woman to the U.S. Senate without her first succeeding her husband in Congress. But all of Kansas’ statewide offices have been held by men since 2015, and it looks like that could continue through 2018.

“I do feel like we have gone back a bit,” said Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican. “Because I grew up in Kansas in the ’80s and ’90s when we had more women in government … and it was normal.”

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Carole Neal, a former president of the Kansas League of Women Voters, called the lack of female candidates in the crowded governor’s race discouraging.

“We don’t quite understand why there aren’t any women candidates,” Neal said. “We were expecting a couple of women to throw their hats in, but they didn’t.”

Less than a year ago, many political observers in Kansas saw U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a Topeka Republican, as the early frontrunner.

But Jenkins, the state’s only woman in Congress, shocked people in January when she announced she would seek neither re-election to the House nor the governor’s office.

Her announcement dramatically reshuffled the race, drawing in a plethora of candidates from both parties, including governor-in-waiting Jeff Colyer, conservative firebrand and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, who would make history as the state’s first black governor. Sixteen men — including two high school students — have formed campaign committees at this point.

Stephanie Sharp, a Johnson County-based political strategist, said the crowded field makes the entry of a female candidate unlikely at this point.

“If you’re a woman and you’re smart, you’re looking at that race thinking, ‘No, thank you,’ ” Sharp said.

“I think women are very pragmatic. They’re looking at the numbers. What do you bring to the table… that isn’t already committed to something else?” she said. “I think a lot of them are sitting it out for other opportunities.”

Clayton said women are “less likely to make impulsive and hasty decisions when running for office in general” and even more cautious about running for a higher office such as governor.

“I think the men just think, ‘Well, of course I should be governor,’ ” Clayton said. “The very qualities that keep us out of higher office are the very things that would make for a more stable government if we were in higher office.”

Kansas, which was the first state with an elected female mayor (Argonia’s Susanna Madora Salter in 1887), ranked first among all states in gender parity in 1993 when Democrat Joan Finney held the governor’s office and Republican Nancy Kassebaum was serving out her final term in the U.S. Senate, according to Representation 2020, a national group pushing for greater representation of women in government.

The group ranked Kansas 21st in gender parity in a 2017 report, giving the state a D grade because of a lack of women in statewide office and the gender imbalance in the Legislature.

Most states scored about the same or worse than Kansas. Only New Hampshire, which has an all-female congressional delegation, scored an A.

Cynthia Terrell, Representation 2020’s director, said New Hampshire’s use of multiwinner districts as opposed to single-winner legislative districts like Kansas creates more opportunities for women to gain elected office.

Under a multiwinner system, multiple legislators would be elected from each legislative district. Ten states use this system and women are three times more likely to be elected by it, Terrell said.

“When you don’t create ladders for women gaining more power in a state, then they’re not positioned to run for higher office like governor,” she said.

Terrell said female candidates offer unique perspectives on policy and their absence from a race can affect what policy issues are emphasized.

“In order for American democracy to work, all constituencies and demographic groups need to have a seat at the table,” she said.

A few female lawmakers briefly contemplated runs for governor, including Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, and freshman Rep. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat.

Wagle, the first woman to serve as Senate president in the state’s history, said in a statement that it wasn’t the right time for her to run for governor because of health concerns for members of her family and “grand baby number 14 on the way.”

Holscher, who gained recognition this legislative session as one of the leaders of an informal women’s caucus, said she had been moving forward with a run until her 11-year-old daughter became ill. That put the brakes on a campaign, she said.

Holscher acknowledged that more senior members of the party were rankled by the idea of a freshman lawmaker pursuing a run for governor after only one year in the Legislature, but she said that didn’t factor into her decision.

“Some people under the dome kind of balk when someone who is newer in the rank looks at running for higher office … because they get very focused on how long someone has been there. Regular voters don’t feel the same,” she said.

“A lot could change in four years,” Holscher said when asked about a run in the future. “A lot changes in four hours here.”

Wagle noted the state’s history of electing women to higher office and said there is still time for a female candidate to file.

Outside the Legislature, Jennifer Winn, a small-business owner from Wichita who mounted a primary challenge against Gov. Sam Brownback in 2014, still has an open campaign committee account, with $225 as of January.

Winn, a marijuana legalization activist, ran as a way to spread awareness of a murder case against her son, who was later acquitted. She confirmed in a phone call that she is not an active candidate but did not rule out the possibility of making a run in 2018.

Marge Ahrens, a former president of the Kansas League of Women Voters, tied the lack of female candidates in 2018 partially to the challenges of fundraising.

“I’m struck by the fact that women don’t hold the purse strings still. It costs a lot of money to run and equalizing that arena is a distance away,” she said.

Ahrens said the number of high-profile female leaders in the state declined after Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius left office and Republican Gov. Sam Brownback rose to political dominance.

“Boy, where are those intelligent, policy-driven women in an era under the leadership like we’ve had here? It’s pretty well-stunted. … It’s been an awful desert for a long time here,” she said.

Brownback’s lieutenant governor, Colyer, responded to questions about the lack of female candidates, what he would do to reach out to female voters and whether he was considering a female running mate with a statement lauding his wife.

“Ruth Colyer would make a GREAT Governor, but she’s too smart to do it,” said Colyer, who will take the reins of state government if the U.S. Senate confirms Brownback for an ambassadorship in the near future.

Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat and outspoken progressive who launched a campaign last month, promised that women will play a major role in his administration if he wins the governor’s race.

“There are a number of talented women who would make excellent governors and would make good candidates. I don’t know why they’re not throwing their hats in, but it’s not because of a lack of talent,” Ward said.

Another Democratic candidate Josh Svaty said that he would look for a running mate that would bring diversity to the ticket.

“I think that the days are long gone when two white guys should be at the top of any ticket,” he said.

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and close friend of Sebelius, said there aren’t as many women in the state’s political pipeline as men, but she’s optimistic about prospects for future elections after several women won first-time legislative seats in 2016.

“If you look at what happened in the ’16 election, you had a lot of women coming in and I do see that as a direct result of Brownback. His policies were so anti-woman, anti-family, anti-child that it really riled women,” Kelly said. “We have some really talented young legislators, many of whom are women, who I think could have a broader political future should they choose to go that way.”   

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3