TOPEKA — Declarations by Attorney General Derek Schmidt and former Gov. Jeff Colyer in March about campaigning for governor against Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly likely came too early for most voters.
They made their intentions known 20 months — ouch — before the general election in 2022. It was likely a maneuver to scare off other potential rivals, but their presence on the stage also marked beginning of a sustained assault on Kelly.
In 2018, she defeated Republican Kris Kobach, a staunch supporter of then-President Donald Trump. Kelly will leverage power of the office through election day in November 2022, but Republican candidates will eagerly point to her record as governor, including difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and challenges of moving through an economic recovery.
“I’ve already heard some complaints that this governor’s race started too soon,” said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political science professor. “In terms of major candidates, it’s the earliest campaign in Kansas history.”
Kansas will be the only state lost last year by President Joe Biden with a Democratic governor up for re-election in 2022. The state was easily carried again last year by Trump, who prevailed in Kansas twice by double-digit margins.
Kelly, a former state senator from Topeka, long ago made it clear she would seek re-election. The Kansas Republican Party has denounced her “abysmal performance” on the economy and on COVID-19 testing and vaccination, while the Kansas Democratic Party warned electing Schmidt or Colyer would “come with disastrous ramifications.”
Beatty said it would be interesting to discover how Colyer defined himself after serving seven years as lieutenant governor under Gov. Sam Brownback followed by about one year as governor. In 2018, Colyer offered himself as a Republican in the mold of Ronald Reagan. It nearly worked, but he lost the GOP primary to Kobach by a thin margin.
“What kind of identity is he going to put out there?” Beatty said.
Colyer started by naming Mary Eisenhower, a granddaughter of President Dwight Eisenhower, to serve as his campaign treasurer. Colyer said she was a “great example of principled, successful Republican leadership” and said too many jobs had been lost during the Kelly administration.
While making an economic appeal to voters, Colyer declared: “It’s time to get Kansas back to work.”
Michael Smith, who teaches political science at Emporia State University, said a key issue for voters would be Colyer’s affiliation with Brownback, who resigned as governor four years ago to become an ambassador of religious freedom under Trump.
Colyer, a Johnson County surgeon and former state senator, also could get hurt in a GOP primary by claims he was unelectable in a statewide race at the top of the ticket, he said.
“But will that actually work?” Smith said. “I mean, the Republican base is so fired up right now. They still love Trump. And I don’t know that strategic voting arguments are gonna work very well this time.”
Schmidt’s ‘red meat’
Schmidt has won three consecutive statewide campaigns for attorney general. He’s a former Senate majority leader and has frequently shared insights with the GOP-led Legislature, including issues thrust into the limelight by lawmakers interested in damaging Kelly’s profile. He has personally battled with the governor on emergency orders that included her unsuccessful bid to restrict large gatherings at church services early in the pandemic.
In his campaign announcement, Schmidt said he would be a “common-sense, conservative voice” and vowed to “fight every day for your family and our way of life.”
Like Colyer, Schmidt has a record of opposition to Medicaid expansion, limits on gun ownership and abortion.
Schmidt has engaged in a series of national legal actions as attorney general, including the effort to promote allegations of voter fraud some believe led to Biden’s victory over Trump.
“He’s gotten involved in some other lawsuits that probably have no chance,” Smith said. “He will throw red meat to the right.”
Smith said Schmidt had sought to toggle between “really hard” Republicans not interested in leaving the Trump orbit and other Republicans closer to the middle of the political spectrum in Kansas.
Beatty said it would be useful for Kelly to be straightforward with voters during the campaign about shortcomings at the Kansas Department of Labor, which failed for months to adequately deal with the flood of jobless claims. He said she could hang her hopes on a strong economic recovery from the pandemic, while reminding voters of her commitment to public education, transportation and restoration of basic operations of state government.
“The idea is that the economy’s booming. Everyone’s vaccinated. The pandemic is over,” Beatty said. “And, then she comes out and says, ‘It was a rough two years. Thanks for sticking with me.'”
The 2021 Legislature’s calculations of taxation, education and emergency management bills include basic political math about influencing voters when Kelly stands for re-election.
Does it help GOP candidates when the Legislature sends Kelly bills offering massive tax breaks, shifts of public funding to private schools and an overhaul of gubernatorial authority in disasters?
Would it be better for the GOP cause if the Legislature responded this session to public support for a medical marijuana law so it couldn’t be used as a campaign rallying cry by Kelly?
Is there a clear Republican advantage to pressing harder on concealed-gun legislation and the constitutional amendment on abortion?
If the House and Senate were to reverse course and approve Medicaid expansion, would 2022 voters reward Kelly or the Legislature?
On Medicaid, labor
Beatty said expansion of Medicaid eligibility based on the law signed by President Barack Obama had long allowed Republicans to object on philosophical and financial grounds to broadening subsidized health care. Blocking delivery of preventative health care to more than 120,000 Kansans also cut off about $5 billion in federal funding that could be used to bolster the state’s hospitals and clinics. Now, Congress is offering hundreds of millions in bonus money to Medicaid holdout states like Kansas.
However, it appears House and Senate leadership again decided to stay on a course that avoided risks of Kelly prevailing on Medicaid expansion.
“It’s not an election year … but it’s election season,” Beatty said. “So, this would be a victory for Laura Kelly that could ride her all the way to re-election.”
Smith said another issue likely to come up in the campaign centered on problems at the Department of Labor in processing unemployment benefits. He said other governors and legislators ought to share responsibility for the debacle.
“There were a number of different threads that wove together to create this crisis. One was the absolutely decrepit computers that they had there that I believe dated from the 1970s. If you need a poster child for deferred maintenance, short of a bridge falling down, here you go — years of deferred maintenance,” Smith said.
The Kelly administration was saddled with antiquated computer technology that minimally got the job down when the jobless rate hovered between 3.1% and 3.3% from February 2019 to March 2020. The IT system broke when coronavirus surged unemployment to 12.6% in April 2020. It had receded to 3.2% in February.
Meanwhile, scammers ripped off Kansas for hundreds of millions of dollars in pandemic unemployment assistance. Other states suffered comparable losses to fraud.
“The Department of Labor could have handled it better,” Smith said. “They weren’t very transparent. And, so, mistakes were made, as they say. But this did not start during the pandemic. This was decades in the making.”