Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly hoped to win a second term Tuesday in Republican-leaning Kansas, with her close race turning on how many independent and moderate GOP voters stayed with her after lifting her to victory four years ago.
Kelly was the only Democratic governor running for reelection this year in a state carried by former President Donald Trump in 2020. Republican challenger Derek Schmidt, the state’s three-term attorney general, tied Kelly to President Joe Biden and blamed the two Democrats for high inflation.
Kelly held an early lead, though it was tightening as more votes were counted.
Advance voting before Tuesday suggested that the turnout would exceed the unusually high number of ballots cast for the August election on the abortion question.
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Democrats were energized in August by a statewide vote decisively rejecting a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would have cleared the way for tighter restrictions on abortion or a ban of the procedure. Schmidt supported the measure while Kelly opposed it, but it wasn’t clear how much staying power the issue had as Kelly emphasized other issues.
Anne Melia, a 59-year-old Democrat who spent weeks in the summer going door to door in the Kansas City area to campaign against the abortion measure, said she knocked on more than 1,000 doors in the fall and found it harder to get out the vote for Kelly and other Democratic candidates.
“There just wasn’t that same intensity,” she said Tuesday. “It’s this partisan thing where people don’t necessarily see the through line about their rights.”
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Independent and moderate Republicans were key, having swung to Kelly in 2018 in her race against then-Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a nationally known hardline provocateur on immigration and voter ID issues. Schmidt hoped to win them back, but his effort was complicated by a challenge from his right from an independent candidate, state Sen. Dennis Pyle, one of the Legislature’s most conservative members.
Kelly’s fundraising for her reelection campaign approached $8 million, while Schmidt raised about $4 million in cash contributions, though in late October the Kansas GOP was paying for mailings for him. Spending on television ads by the candidates and outside groups exceeded $40 million.
Schmidt echoed Republican candidates across the U.S. in trying to tie the Democratic incumbent to Biden. In their second and final debate, Kelly refused to answer when he asked whether she thought Kansans were better off than they were two years ago, adding, “I have stayed focused like a laser on Kansas, not on the federal government.”
Kelly also touted her efforts to lure new jobs to Kansas, suggesting that work helped the state weather national economic problems. Less than a week before Tuesday’s election, she participated in a groundbreaking ceremony in the Kansas City area for a multibillion-dollar mega-factory for electronics giant Panasonic Corp. to build electric-vehicle batteries, attracted by taxpayer-funded incentives worth $829 million over 10 years, the largest package the state had ever offered a private business.
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Kelly ran as the self-described “education governor,” touting higher spending on public schools, the state’s improved finances and efforts to lure businesses to the state. Democrats tried to link Schmidt to former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who launched a nationally notorious experiment in cutting income taxes in 2012 and 2013 that was followed by huge, persistent budget shortfalls.
Schmidt chided Kelly for what he called her “unhealthy obsession” with Brownback. He also sought to turn the issue of education against her by highlighting her March 2020 pandemic-related decision to close K-12 school buildings until the fall.
Mel Adams, an 80-year-old Republican from Topeka, said the economy was the key issue, adding that people are fed up with Democrats. He dismissed Kelly’s attempts to link Schmidt to Brownback and didn’t think much of her portraying herself as politically in the middle of the road.
“That’s where roadkill happens,” he said.
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Schmidt also painted Kelly as anti-police for calling systemic racism a problem following the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And Republicans highlighted Kelly’s vetoes of two proposals to ban transgender girls and women from girls’ and women’s school, club and college sports teams.