Gov. Kelly gears up for challenging re-election campaign in 2022: ‘I’m not done yet’

Attorney General Schmidt waves aside question of gubernatorial run

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly says the 2021 Legislature needs to be cautious regarding tax reform measures to avoid cratering the state government's budget. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly says the 2021 Legislature needs to be cautious regarding tax reform measures to avoid cratering the state government's budget. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly makes no secret of her plan to run for re-election in 2022, while Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt prefers to leave the question for another day.

Kelly prevailed in the deeply red state of Kansas during 2018 against GOP nominee Kris Kobach by developing a campaign based on a vow to restore funding to education, transportation and social safety-net programs while offering voters a return to a less-chaotic era of state government budgeting. For much of the decade, tax and financial problems conspired to undermine Gov. Sam Brownback’s goals for reforming the state. Kobach, who earned a reputation as a feisty secretary of state, was able to win the primary but fell short against Kelly.

In an interview Wednesday with Kansas Reflector, Kelly said she would seek the Democratic nomination in two years because progress had been made on key issues but “I’m not done yet.”

“When I ran in ’18, I ran because the state was in such bad shape,” she said in her Capitol office. “We said we would fund education. We funded education and got us out of the courts. I’m committed to economic development and growth in Kansas. Look what we’ve been able to do. We just broke the record for new capital investment in a single year.”

She said there was more work on those fronts and a need to push ahead with improvement of the state’s transportation network, broadband capabilities and information technology infrastructure.

Schmidt, elected attorney general in three statewide elections by wide margins, said he wasn’t ready to discuss a Schmidt vs. Kelly showdown. He’s a former Kansas Senate majority leader who has adeptly maneuvered between conservative and moderate wings of the state Republican Party.

“I think let’s save that conversation for another day. Maybe next year,” Schmidt told Kansas Reflector. “We’ll see what happens.”

Schmidt said he found the job of attorney general intellectually challenging and found reason just about every day to have fun at work. He’s also aware of the opportunity afforded Republican candidates for governor in 2022 because those individuals would go against the only Democratic gubernatorial incumbent from a state that voted for President Donald Trump in 2020.

The field for Kansas governor and other statewide offices ought to become more clear in April when the state’s GOP movers and shakers convene in April. For example, the appointment of Democratic Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers to the vacant state treasurer post guarantees a Republican challenge in two years.

In addition to Schmidt, the list of potential candidates for governor include former Gov. Jeff Colyer, a Johnson County Republican who served as governor for about one year after replacing Sam Brownback, who resigned to work in the Trump administration. Colyer also served in the Kansas Senate and narrowly lost the August 2018 primary campaign to Kobach.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican with robust statewide name recognition, recently said through a spokesperson that he intended to seek re-election to the U.S. Senate rather than dabble in statehouse politics. Other GOP potential candidates: Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, Wichita businessman Wink Hartman.

Mike Kuckelman, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said liberal instincts of Kelly led to a “disastrous handling of this pandemic and our state’s economy.” He guaranteed Kansas voters would send the Democratic governor into retirement in 2022.

In the interview, Kelly said she wasn’t certain what metrics the state GOP relied upon to assess her work during the COVID-19 crisis that has killed 2,500 people and infected nearly 210,000 in Kansas.

She said the transition of schools to mostly online instruction and the temporary closure of non-essential businesses in early days of the pandemic were necessary to protect public health. It took time and resources to safely reopen businesses and schools, she said.

“We did shut things down,” the governor said. “We did because we didn’t know what this virus would do and we needed time to get our battle plan in place.”