Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly flaunts pragmatism, fortifying reelection plans

December 28, 2021 3:33 am

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has been gearing up for a re-election race against Attorney General Derek Schmidt. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is politically smarter than you.

Before you object, answer this question: Did you run for governor in Kansas as a Democrat in 2018 and win?

And before you brush off that question as a one-time fluke, answer this one: Do you have a positive approval rating (54%) in an overwhelmingly Republican state?

I make these points for a simple reason: Liberals in and around Kansas have been questioning Kelly’s judgment lately. They have good reason to, from their perspective, but they’re also not running for reelection in what’s expected to be a banner year for Republicans. Yes, Kelly voiced opposition to the federal vaccine mandate, signed anti-mandate legislation from the Thanksgiving week special session and parted ways with Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman. Each of these actions, though, likely strengthened her nascent campaign against Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

Meanwhile, she has continued to champion a list of priorities that would delight progressive activists if enacted — expanding Medicaid, legalizing medical marijuana and eliminating the state sales tax on food. Kansas and Kansans would benefit from these policies. She also has steadfastly championed fiscal responsibility after the disaster of former Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration. Kansas and Kansans already have benefited from this.

Enacting and continuing such policies requires that Kelly actually be governor.

In a state where registered Republicans number 872,514 and registered Democrats number 512,260, that means she needs votes from independents and political moderates to win another term. In that context, opposing a federal vaccine mandate makes political sense. Courts started batting around President Joe Biden’s order almost immediately. Likewise, signing the nonsensical bill from special session shut down an easy line of attack for next year’s campaign.

Progressives know the way they would react in these situations — backing Biden’s orders and vetoing the anti-mandate bill.

They’re also not running Kansas. Neither is Bernie Sanders nor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Meanwhile, Kelly has continued to champion a list of priorities that would delight progressive activists if enacted — expanding Medicaid, legalizing medical marijuana and eliminating the state sales tax on food.

– Clay Wirestone

Of the three examples mentioned above, parting ways with Norman may be the most challenging to explain. Taking common sense measures to slow and stop the spread of a dangerous virus should be above political considerations. But Kelly has every right to shape her team as she likes, and often in politics messaging is policy. Effective politicians understand the importance of speaking with one voice, especially during a crisis. Norman didn’t.

Kelly’s other focus in the runup to next year’s election appears to be business development. As she told Kansas Reflector’s Tim Carpenter this week: “I do that because I want to be able to fund our schools, our roads, foster care system and other essential services. The only way to do that without raising taxes is to expand your base. So that’s why we have been so aggressive in recruiting and retaining companies.”

Lt. Gov. David Toland made a similar case to Kansas Reflector editor in chief Sherman Smith earlier this month: “I do think we are in the process of reshaping the Kansas economy, allowing innovation, in particular, to play a leading role in creating the jobs that will keep our kids in the state, creating the economic opportunities that will really allow communities to flourish.”

Kelly and Toland are singing from the same hymnal, one that has the benefit of being used by the independent and moderate voters who might re-elect them.

We’ll see how Schmidt approaches his side of the race in months to come. He’s clever enough, if disappointingly eager to play footsie with fascism. Running and winning as a Republican in Kansas doesn’t take cleverness, though. Just a pulse and willingness to play ball with the Kansas Chamber and Kansans for Life.

In some ways, Kelly’s approach reminds me of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. The Build Back Better slayer has been attacked and pressured relentlessly by Democratic and progressive activists. But he represents a state that voted for Donald Trump over Biden by 38.9 percentage points. The voters who put him in office don’t necessarily watch MSNBC or read Twitter. They see him as an independent voice who happens to be a Democrat.

That means Manchin will oppose the broader party on occasion. But what other Democrat could win a U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia? Likewise, Kelly may not be the outspoken liberal that state activists dream of, but she’s managed a nearly impossible job for the last three years and appears eager to earn another term.

She may win that term. She may not.

For now, she should win the benefit of the doubt.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.