Jim Barnett is throwing his stethoscope into the ring.
The 63-year-old doctor and former state senator is running for the Republican nomination for governor.
Barnett, who represented an Emporia-centered district in the Kansas Senate for a decade, won the 2006 GOP primary over a relatively weak field but lost in a landslide to incumbent Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in the general election.
Four years later he came up short in a race against Tim Huelskamp for the Republican nomination in the 1st Congressional District.
Running this time on a unity theme of “One Kansas,” Barnett, who now lives and practices medicine in Topeka, said he wants to “fix” the state by reinvesting in education, infrastructure and programs to improve Kansans’ quality of life.
“You know, I love this state and I want to help fix it. I think it will be fun fixing it,” Barnett said Tuesday in Topeka to kick off a nine-city announcement tour.
If elected, Barnett said he would put a sign over Interstate 70 to declare “the Kansas tax experiment has come to an end.”
Asked if he was running as the moderate alternative to conservative Kris Kobach, the state’s high-profile secretary of state who announced his candidacy for governor earlier this month, Barnett said he preferred to label himself as the candidate who “represents the values of most Kansans.”
“Now, there are definitely some contrasts between Mr. Kobach and myself,” he said. “And those contrasts are fairly sharp because I support what the Legislature just did.”
That is a reference to the Legislature overriding Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a $1.2 billion tax increase bill to balance the state budget. Barnett said lawmakers showed “courage” while Kobach called the tax increase “outrageous.”
Barnett also said he supports Medicaid expansion, but added he doesn’t think that Congress will allow states that haven’t yet expanded eligibility to do so. Instead, he expects that any Obamacare repeal bill Congress approves will reduce Medicaid funding and convert it to a block-grant program.
“I have major concerns about that,” Barnett said.
If that happens, he said Kansas would need a governor committed to maintaining coverage for the approximately 440,000 low-income, disabled and elderly Kansans currently enrolled in Medicaid.
If elected, Barnett said he also would attempt to reduce poverty by expanding access to early childhood education and by reducing the state sales tax on food.
Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist who closely monitors state politics, said at the outset, the Republican race for governor appears to be Kobach’s to lose.
But Miller said Barnett could catch on with Republican voters wary of a candidate too closely aligned with Brownback on taxes and President Donald Trump on immigration.
“If Barnett were able to consolidate Republicans who are more Bob Dole kind of center-right to Nancy Kassebaum middle-of-the-road moderate, then he might become a much stronger contender and threaten Kobach,” Miller said, referring to Kansas GOP icons noted for their pragmatism and ability to get things done across party lines while serving in the U.S. Senate.
As it stands now, Barnett would likely compete against former Kansas Rep. Ed O’Malley for the moderate to center-right vote. O’Malley, who left the Legislature to become president and CEO of the Wichita-based Kansas Leadership Center, has launched an exploratory campaign for governor.
Kobach faces competition on the right from Wichita businessman Wink Hartman, who attempted to get a head start on the field by announcing his candidacy in February.
Two Democrats — former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and former Kansas Rep. Josh Svaty — are actively competing for their party’s gubernatorial nomination. Many expect that House Minority Leader Jim Ward, of Wichita, also will run. He hasn’t announced but is already appearing at candidate forums across the state.
Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer is likely to join the Republican field as an incumbent if, as expected, Brownback leaves before the end of his term to accept a position in the Trump administration.
The 2018 governor’s race also may feature a strong independent candidate in Johnson County businessman Greg Orman, who lost a closer-than-expected bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in 2014.
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.