The Kansas governor's race heats up with a key endorsement. Here's what to know.

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Former Gov. Jeff Colyer, right, answers questions with U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall on Monday at the Capitol Plaza Hotel, 1717 S.W. Topeka Blvd.

Former Gov. Jeff Colyer picked up a key endorsement Monday in his bid to reclaim the governorship, earning the backing of U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, as he launched a full-throated appeal as the "only conservative" in the nascent race.

It comes as Colyer formally announced his gubernatorial bid at the Capitol Plaza Hotel — a race he already effectively entered when he announced the beginnings of a campaign apparatus in February.

More:Former Gov. Jeff Colyer signals he will launch 2022 bid to reclaim governorship

Marshall's endorsement could be a key asset in winning over conservative voters, especially proponents of former President Donald Trump. And it helps Colyer burnish his conservative credentials as he aims to distinguish himself from his chief rival, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, in the bid to take on Gov. Laura Kelly next November's general election.

Marshall's backing is widely believed to be payback for the 2020 U.S. Senate campaign when Colyer was considered to be a potential foe for Marshall's bid to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts.

Instead, Colyer backed his fellow physician in the early days of the primary and Marshall appeared at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka on Monday to return the favor at a news conference.

Related:Marshall snags backing of Colyer in Republican U.S. Senate contest

Schmidt's campaign took no umbrage with Marshall's endorsement, saying it was part of a pre-ordained move to "swap endorsements" — something both men denied. Marshall said no conversations took place on the matter until a "week or two ago."

"This is all about my lifelong friendship with Jeff Colyer," Marshall said. "I've been a big Jeff Colyer fan since medical school. This is really about friendship, and I think he has a great resume."

Colyer touts conservative bona fides in announcement

During his campaign launch, Colyer called himself the "true conservative in the race" and took aim at "liberal Laura Kelly."

He explicitly slammed the governor for vetoing a slate of tax cuts on Friday, said he would sign into law a bill banning transgender athletes in women's sports and took aim at restrictions Kelly put in place in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Implicit in all of this was a criticism of his top rival, although Colyer declined to put too fine a point in commenting on Schmidt's track record.

"I'll let him explain his stance," Colyer said "Here's what I'm for: I'm for making sure that our state is growing, that we return to conservative values and that we actually get (them)."

Schmidt's campaign hit back with a statement saying Kansas Republicans "need to move forward, not return to the failures of 2018" when a divided primary created an opening for Kelly to win.

More:The governor's race is officially underway. What role will Sam Brownback and Donald Trump play?

"The stakes are too high to risk losing again in 2022," Schmidt said in the statement. "I'm the only proven winner in this race — the only trusted leader Kansans can count on to defeat Governor Kelly and bring common sense and conservative leadership for our state."

Colyer, who served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Sam Brownback, was promoted to the governorship in 2018 after Brownback left for an ambassadorship under then-President Donald Trump. He lost in the 2018 gubernatorial race by a razor-thin margin to former Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

He took care to distance himself from the controversial tax cuts pursued under the Brownback administration, although he did tout the $900 million budget surplus that existed after Colyer departed the governor's mansion — which largely accumulated after the tax policy was mostly repealed in 2017.

"I'm not talking about the past," Colyer said. "I'm talking about where are we going, as a state, and where we need to go as a state."

Former Gov. Jeff Colyer, right, hugs U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall after Marshall endorsed Colyer for governor Monday.

Marshall endorsement could appeal to Donald Trump's supporters

Colyer noted his campaign's internal polling showed he had the highest name recognition of any candidate running thus far and said the early start to the campaign would give him time to bolster his appeal to voters.

And Marshall's move to back Colyer could help that case.

It is by far the most significant endorsement yet in the early days of the governor's race, although Schmidt has picked up prominent supporters of his own, including former Kansas RNC National Committeewoman Helen Van Etten.

Bob Beatty, professor of political science at Washburn University, said Marshall's status as one of Trump's top supporters in the U.S. Senate gives his voice a unique resonance with Kansans who remain fans of the former president.

Bob Beatty, political science professor at Washburn University, gives his take on the 2022 gubernatorial race after Monday's endorsement by U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall for former Gov. Jeff Colyer.

"This is really helpful to Colyer," Beatty said. "He doesn't have to necessarily go full Trump. ... With Marshall's support, he gets that association without having to be like (Kris) Kobach and show up at the White House."

But even Marshall acknowledged the race is only likely to grow more crowded as August 2022 inches closer.

Wink Hartman, who served as the Republican lieutenant governor candidate in 2018, is said to be weighing a run. House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, told The Topeka Capital-Journal last month he hadn't ruled out joining the race.

And then there is Kelly, who many observers believe to be in a weakened position ahead of her re-election campaign given the intensely political debate over the COVID-19 pandemic, high-profile struggles at the Kansas Department of Labor and the fact she is running in a national electoral landscape that is likely to favor Republicans.

Beatty cautioned that much could change before November 2022, with the potential for improvement in the pandemic, the economy and, by extension, Kelly's re-election hopes.

"Right now, you'd say Laura Kelly would have a very difficult time," he said. "But what she would probably say is, 'Wait a year.'"