TOPEKA, Kan. – Both major parties say the Kansas governor's race is a tossup in its last days as abortion politics, lingering ill will toward former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and an independent conservative candidate make for a tighter-than-expected contest in the Republican-leaning state.
Democratic incumbent Gov. Laura Kelly should be on the defensive as the only Democratic governor in the U.S. running for reelection in a state carried by former President Donald Trump in 2020. But a decisive statewide vote in August affirming abortion rights energized Democrats and moderates and boosted Kelly's chance of holding the votes crucial to her victory four years ago.
GOP challenger Derek Schmidt hopes to tap voter frustration with inflation and crime. Kelly has largely stayed on a message that Kansas is financially healthy again after past budget woes tied to Brownback, with Schmidt a key political ally.
“I am more confident than I have been,” said Joan Wagnon, a former Kansas Democratic Party chair and ex-Topeka mayor.
Schmidt, the state’s three-term attorney general, is ending his campaign on the attack with “Kansas Can Do Better” rallies around the state. Kelly and other Democrats did “Meet Me in the Middle” events set for the final weekend and Monday after her allies had a “Back on Track, Can't Go Back” tour.
“It’s not that I ignore national issues. You know, I understand that inflation is an issue,” Kelly told reporters after a recent event in Topeka. “But I think people in the state of Kansas want me to focus on the things that I actually have some control over.”
Many Republicans' early expectations of a comfortable victory for Schmidt faded months ago. Yet for all the unexpected sweating, Republicans still think Schmidt can bank on national GOP midterm momentum.
“Folks are working hard, making things happen in their community, and frustrated with the Biden-Kelly Democrat philosophy that values big government over freedom,” Schmidt posted on Facebook after one small-town event this week.
Kelly has spent more than $7 million on her reelection, roughly twice as much as Schmidt through late October. Outside groups have boosted the spending on television ads past $40 million.
Schmidt's hopes rest in part on energy from the August abortion vote fading, something some abortion rights advocates said they've felt. Schmidt supported the measure on the ballot, a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution to allow the GOP-controlled Legislature to greatly restrict or ban abortion. Kelly opposed it, but she hasn't focused on abortion access as an issue.
Turnout so far among people voting in advance is higher than for the August election, which set a record for a Kansas primary. Yet it's also lower than in November 2018, when Democrats tapped suburban discontent with Trump and the Republican nominee for governor was Kris Kobach, known nationally as an immigration and election fraud provocateur.
Schmidt joined Republicans nationwide in pivoting to crime last month, though the state recently reported a small decrease in violent crime in 2021 compared with 2020. He pointed to Kelly's appointment of a racial justice commission and her comments that systemic racism is a problem in law enforcement to suggest that she's anti-police.
Republicans pounded Kelly with ads over her two vetoes of two proposals to ban transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s school, club and college sports. Schmidt also attacked Kelly over state-administered grants to arts venues that later hosted drag shows, which have been a bugaboo for the right across the U.S. for months.
Kansas registration benefits Republicans, who represent 44.7% of those registered statewide. Unaffiliated voters, at 27.8%, beat out Democrats at 26.5%.
“A lot people are just pretty fed up with government in general, especially the Trump folks,” said Tim Shallenburger, a former state treasurer and Kansas Republican Party chair. “Biden has got them motivated, not Laura Kelly, or not Derek Schmidt.”
Yet for all of the playing to issues that rile Republicans, Shallenburger said, “I don't see a landslide brewing.”
Independent state Sen. Dennis Pyle is one reason. He is a former Republican and one of the state's most conservative legislators and is attacking Schmidt from the right. Pyle raised only $90,000 in cash as of late October, but an outside Democratic group aired radio ads, sent mailers and texted messages in the campaign's final weeks portraying Pyle as the true conservative and Schmidt as a poser.
Republicans were outraged. The Democratic group jumped in to help Pyle after Kelly built much of her message on an argument that Schmidt represented a return to a recent conservative past.
Kelly and her allies attacked Schmidt for standing politically with Brownback and not protesting a failed 2012-13 experiment in cutting taxes under Brownback that was followed by persistent budget shortfalls.
Legislators repealed most of the tax-cutting experiment in 2017, and Kelly is making much of the state's improved finances on her watch. The state treasury is flush, with tax collections exceeding expectations every month for more than two years.
Kelly's office also publicizes projects like plans for a new biotechnology lab in the Kansas City area and the planned expansion of a pizza manufacturing plant in Salina, some 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Topeka.
Kelly joined other dignitaries this week in donning hard hats and digging up the first few shovelfuls of earth for a multibillion-dollar Panasonic Corp. plant in the Kansas City area for making batteries for electric vehicles.
Pat McFerron, an Oklahoma based-pollster and consultant working in Kansas for U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, said he's seeing Republicans “kind of come back home" in recent weeks.
But he added, "There is the power of incumbency,” McFerron said. “That’s unequivocal.”
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