GOP headache: Kansas poised for independent bid for governor

August 1, 2022 GMT
Kansas state Sen. Dennis Pyle, right, I-Hiawatha, confers with Bryan Caskey, left, state elections director for the Kansas secretary of state's office, after submitting petitions with nearly 8,900 signatures on them, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Topeka, Kan. Pyle is trying to get on the November ballot as a candidate for governor. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
Kansas state Sen. Dennis Pyle, right, I-Hiawatha, confers with Bryan Caskey, left, state elections director for the Kansas secretary of state's office, after submitting petitions with nearly 8,900 signatures on them, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Topeka, Kan. Pyle is trying to get on the November ballot as a candidate for governor. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
Kansas state Sen. Dennis Pyle, right, I-Hiawatha, confers with Bryan Caskey, left, state elections director for the Kansas secretary of state's office, after submitting petitions with nearly 8,900 signatures on them, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Topeka, Kan. Pyle is trying to get on the November ballot as a candidate for governor. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
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Kansas state Sen. Dennis Pyle, right, I-Hiawatha, confers with Bryan Caskey, left, state elections director for the Kansas secretary of state's office, after submitting petitions with nearly 8,900 signatures on them, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Topeka, Kan. Pyle is trying to get on the November ballot as a candidate for governor. (AP Photo/John Hanna)
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Kansas state Sen. Dennis Pyle, right, I-Hiawatha, confers with Bryan Caskey, left, state elections director for the Kansas secretary of state's office, after submitting petitions with nearly 8,900 signatures on them, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Topeka, Kan. Pyle is trying to get on the November ballot as a candidate for governor. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A hard-right Kansas lawmaker who has clashed with Republican leaders was poised Monday to win a spot on the November ballot as an independent candidate for governor, helped by allies of Democratic incumbent Laura Kelly.

State Sen. Dennis Pyle, of Hiawatha, a Republican until June, submitted petitions with nearly 8,900 signatures to the Kansas secretary of state’s office for verification that the signers are registered voters, as required. State law requires 5,000 valid signatures, and typically exceeding that number by several thousand gets someone on the ballot.

Pyle’s bid would complicate presumed GOP nominee and state Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s efforts to unseat Kelly. Some Democrats hope Pyle and Schmidt would split conservative Republican votes just enough for Kelly to win a second four-year term.

Pyle said he went door-to-door to gather signatures, but Kelly allies played an important role in the signature-gathering as well. Democratic state Rep. Vic Miller, of Topeka, confirmed last month that he was circulating petitions, and so did a union that endorsed Kelly in 2018 and this year. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that organizers of an abortion rights rally Saturday also circulated petitions for Pyle.

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“Politics make strange bedfellows, and so you’re seeing that here,” Pyle told reporters after turning in his petitions. “There were people at the door that told me that they wanted to sign my petition because they thought we would split the vote.”

Both Pyle and Schmidt describe themselves as conservatives, and both support a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution on the ballot Tuesday that would allow the GOP-controlled Legislature to further restrict or ban abortion. Pyle has raised the integrity of the 2020 election as an issue, opposing ballot drop boxes. Schmidt brought Kansas into a lawsuit with Texas meant to overturn election results in battleground states lost by former President Donald Trump.

But Pyle opposed plans from the state Senate’s top Republicans for redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries — and was stripped of most of his committee assignments as a result. He once brought a container of fishing stink bait to a debate, using it as a prop in protesting a tax bill.

He sought Monday to tap into some far-right Republicans’ doubts about whether Schmidt is a committed conservative, partly because Schmidt worked for GOP moderates before first running for elected office. Pyle called Schmidt a liberal.

Schmidt campaign spokesperson C.J. Grover called Pyle a “vanity candidate” and a “fake conservative.” Kansans for Life, the state’s most politically influential anti-abortion group, and the Kansas State Rifle Association, reaffirmed their support for Schmidt.

The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union gathered signatures for Pyle, Kansas Chair Ty Dragoo said Monday. The union backed Kelly in 2018 and endorsed her reelection in June — with Dragoo saying she “always made sure we had a seat at the table.”

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But Dragoo said Pyle also has been “labor friendly,” siding with the union on issues dealing with automated vehicles and railroad safety.

“We support candidates that support us, so we’re never going to tell a candidate, ’Hey, because it may hurt or help another candidate, we’re not going to support you,” Dragoo said.

Miller served two years in the Senate, appointed to the seat Kelly once held, before returning to his old House seat in 2021. Asked two weeks ago about his efforts to help Pyle, Miller called Pyle a friend and “a man of principle.”

“You know, I don’t know why you can’t help a friend regardless of what party they are, or if they are of no party at all,” Miller said.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna