TOPEKA — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly wasted no time launching a general-election bid to burnish her bipartisan credentials by inviting Republican moderates to tout her record and emphasize contrasts with GOP gubernatorial nominee Derek Schmidt.
Schmidt, elected Kansas attorney general three times by wide margins, received the Republican Party’s nomination for governor in the same primary that awarded Kelly the Democratic Party’s nomination. They entered the August-to-November campaign on heels of the overwhelming defeat of a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution designed to eliminate abortion rights recognized by the Kansas Supreme Court. Schmidt supported the amendment, while Kelly opposed it.
Former Kansas Senate President Steve Morris, former Kansas Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger and former state Rep. Jan Kessinger affirmed their endorsements of Kelly during a Wednesday event set up by the Kansas Democratic Party. Each outlined why reelection of the Democratic governor was in the state’s interests, including Republicans.
“Now is certainly not the time to change course,” Praeger said. “We’ve come a long way in four years. She inherited a pretty dismal budgetary situation.”
“She was focused on policy and not on partisan politics, which I found to be very refreshing,” Kessinger said.
Praeger and Kessinger also said they were concerned Schmidt had joined attorneys general from more than a dozen states in a lawsuit aimed at affirming former President Donald Trump’s unfounded assertion the 2020 presidential election was stolen through fraud and misconduct.
That Texas-initiated suit challenged election results in Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania because those states allegedly implemented illegal pandemic-related changes to election procedures that undermined legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s victory. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the case in December 2020.
“It disturbs me that Derek has tried to take on this mantra of being a Trumpite,” said Praeger, a three-term state insurance commissioner who served a couple years with Schmidt in the Kansas Senate. “I don’t want that in the governor’s office.”
“Who is the real Derek Schmidt?” said Kessinger, who served four years in the Kansas House. “That’s a question I would have.”
C.J. Grover, Schmidt’s campaign manager, said commentary of Republicans who hadn’t supported a GOP nominee for governor “since before the iPhone was invented” shouldn’t be considered newsworthy in the aftermath of the primary election.
“Derek Schmidt earned the votes of 100,000 more Kansans than Governor Kelly, just as he did in 2018, because Kansans know our state can, and must, do so much better,” Grover said.
The Pyle factor
The November ballot for governor in Kansas is expected to include state Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha farmer and conservative member of the Legislature since 2001. He submitted about 9,000 petition signatures to the secretary of state’s office with an application to be included on the general election ballot as an independent candidate for governor.
He must obtain only 5,000 qualified signatures to be certified, but it was likely his petition will be challenged by Republicans opposed to his darkhorse candidacy. In an oddity, Democrats helped Pyle collect signatures.
The Kansas Republican Party — Pyle had to renounce his GOP registration to run as an independent — offered a bitter denunciation of his bid for governor. In the process, Pyle referred to Schmidt as a liberal.
Morris, who also endorsed Kelly’s campaign for governor, served as a Republican in the Kansas Senate from 1993 to 2013 before defeated in a campaign inspired by Gov. Sam Brownback’s opposition to moderate Republicans. He was Senate president during a period in which Schmidt was Senate majority leader.
“Dennis Pyle’s candidacy will have an effect on the election,” Morris said. “It should probably take away some of Derek’s votes.”
In a Tuesday night speech, Schmidt said Kelly’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic and her approach to constitutional liberty, education, public safety, abortion rights, welfare and election integrity necessitated a change in the governor’s office.
He said the late U.S. Sen. Robert Dole, who represented Kansas in Congress from 1961 to 1996 and was the GOP’s nominee for president, told him Kansans revealed to attentive politicians the way forward.
“We need a governor who follows that advice — who listens to Kansans, all Kansans — and works together with people of good will to help the hardworking citizens of the state,” Schmidt said.
The attorney general said it was alarming Kansas had 20,000 fewer people working in the state than the day Kelly took office in 2019 and the stress of rising inflation in the United States was imperiling financial stability of families. Kansas voters can push back against “big government liberalism” embraced by Kelly and Biden by transitioning to a Republican governor in January, Schmidt said.
Schmidt said he would work to gain support of Kansans in every community by emphasizing the necessity to “move forward to a bright future, not remain stuck in the stale past.”
Former Gov. Jeff Colyer, during a break Monday while campaigning on behalf of the abortion amendment, said weaknesses in Kelly’s reelection campaign were evident after she spent millions of dollars in the primary denouncing Schmidt without moving ahead in polling. He said for that kind of money, an incumbent Kansas governor ought to be sitting on a lead of 10 percentage points.
“This is the best pickup opportunity in the country,” said Colyer, who planned to run against Schmidt for governor but withdrew for medical reasons. “This is clearly the best take-back position.”
Colyer said voters expected Schmidt to explain why Kelly’s policies failed during the pandemic emergency and why her administration underperformed on job growth.
“He needs to assert his positive message on how the state’s going to grow,” Colyer said.
A feature of Kelly’s campaign has been her ability to convince Republicans to cross the partisan divide to endorse her candidacy. Earlier this year more than 160 GOP members, including former National Committeewoman Alicia Salisbury and former Attorney General Robert Stephan, joined a coalition backing her.
Some Republicans working to advance Schmidt’s campaign dismissed the list as a collection of has-beens who no longer resonated with most GOP voters.
Mike Kuckelman, chairman of the state Republican Party, praised the party’s newly minted nominees, including Schmidt, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and 3rd District congressional candidate Amanda Adkins. Adkins is challenging Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids in a district gerrymandered by the Legislature to clear a path for Adkins.
Kuckelman expressed optimism in the three Republican candidates by pointing to Biden, who slipped to an all-time low approval rating of 38% in July.
“Joe Biden and the Democrats’ policies have led to 40-year high inflation, record-breaking gas prices, skyrocketing violent crime and now an economic recession,” Kuckelman said. “Kansans know the radical agenda of Joe Biden, Laura Kelly and Sharice Davids is a threat to their future and they are ready to elect Republicans up and down the ballot this November.”
In response, Democratic Party spokeswoman Emma O’Brien said Schmidt would return Kansas to the broken budgets, stalled economy and underfunded public schools that marked Brownback’s years as governor.
“After standing by Sam Brownback … Schmidt is now asking Kansans for a promotion, hoping we’ve forgotten the damage he caused our state,” O’Brien said. “Kansans haven’t forgotten, and this fall, we will reject Derek Schmidt.”
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