TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas Democrats are riding an eight-year losing streak in statewide elections, and the pressure to break it has intensified a debate within the party over how to pull more votes from Republican-leaning rural areas to help win the governor's race this year.
Democrats nationally are hoping that dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump fuels victories in congressional races. In Kansas, they're hoping to capitalize on ex-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's unpopularity when he left office in January, the result of years of budget problems following income tax cuts that were ultimately rolled back.
But they acknowledge that their lack of appeal outside urban and suburban neighborhoods is a problem.
In the 2014 governor's race, Democrat Paul Davis prevailed in both the eastern third of the state and three of its five most populous counties. But Brownback narrowly won re-election by winning rural counties, particularly in western Kansas — 30 of them with more than two-thirds of the vote.
To remedy that, the party has hired organizers for rural northwestern and southwestern Kansas and has held forums for governor candidates in Dodge City and Garden City. The major candidates have hit dozens of events in the western half of the state since the start of the year.
Democrats have their first contested primary for governor since 1998, with state Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, former state Agriculture Secretary Joshua Svaty and ex-Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer as the leading contenders in Tuesday's election.
"In some of these counties, we need to do much, much better," said Chris Reeves, a Kansas City-area activist and member of the Democratic National Committee who also owns a home in western Kansas. "This is the year where we really should have a really good shot at some of these races."
The challenge is that Democrats don't agree on how to do better in rural Kansas.
Former Democratic State Treasurer Dennis McKinney, from Greensburg, said Democrats in Kansas have suffered as the party has moved further left on issues such as abortion. McKinney, a former Kansas House minority leader who had an anti-abortion voting record as a legislator, said the shift alienated voters who otherwise identified with Democrats on wages and education.
"We've lost a lot of our union voters," McKinney said. "We've lost a lot of our rural voters."
Kelly and Svaty both consistently supported gun-rights measures as legislators, though Kelly started breaking with it in recent years and both are promising to pursue gun-control measures if elected. Svaty also had an anti-abortion voting record as a legislator but now downplays it.
Reeves said social issues have become a "scapegoat." He argues that Democrats can win by talking about economic issues, such as trade and better wages.
Svaty has repeatedly criticized Trump's trade policies, arguing that a governor must be visible on the issue. In July, Kelly outlined a "rural prosperity" plan that includes tax credits for housing in small towns, support for rural groceries and a 10-year road-improvement program.
The candidates are visiting the western half of the state regularly. Brewer has made at least 18 campaign stops since the start of the year, and Kelly and Svaty's campaigns said they've had 28 events each — almost one a week.
Svaty has raised the issue of appealing to rural Kansas most directly. He is from Ellsworth, about 200 miles (322 kilometers) west of Kansas City and formerly represented a heavily Republican district in the Kansas House from 2003 to 2009.
He argues that the Kansas Democratic Party has relied too heavily in recent years on drawing votes from the state's five most populous counties — two in Kansas City and those containing Topeka, Wichita and Lawrence — that contain 53 percent of the state's voters.
"I have made it very clear to them that we will shift away from this five-county strategy and push to be a statewide party," Svaty said.
Kelly credits her willingness to campaign in the rural parts of her Topeka-area district with her success. She said she initially was advised against spending time in Wabaunsee County, population just over 7,000 in the 2010 census, in her first race in 2004 and ignored that counsel. She won by 98 votes out of nearly 31,000 cast.
"You don't ignore any part of your constituency," Kelly said.
Brewer has said he can appeal to Republican voters, but he's most frequently stressed his ability to win two terms in a city with thousands of conservative voters.
"We must bring everybody together, and that's one of the things I'm good at," Brewer told an audience of about 200 Democrats at a recent forum in Topeka.
Democrats face a lingering question of whether Republicans' successes were a reaction to former President Barack Obama and the party's 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, or a long-term shift to the right in Kansas politics.
"If we're not competing in western Kansas, we will lose again," Svaty said.