Opinion

Derek Schmidt claims to be running for Kansas governor. He’s not very chatty about it.

August 29, 2022 3:33 am

Attorney General Derek Schmidt gives a statement and answers questions after filing to run as a Republican for governor at the Secretary of State’s Office on Wednesday. Schmidt waited to file until last minute and announce his running mate, Katie Sawyer. (Lily O’Shea Becker/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt is running for governor.

At least I think he is.

One might be forgiven for wondering, given that he doesn’t appear to have given a news conference since announcing his running mate. That was nearly three months ago. Since then, we’ve seen wild shifts in the political landscape — the reversal of Roe v. Wade, Kansans voting overwhelmingly for abortion rights, Kris Kobach becoming the GOP nominee for attorney general — but not Schmidt answering a bunch of reporters’ questions in person.

At times, the candidate blasts out a news release or campaign announcement, taking incumbent Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly to task for one thing or another. Cleaving to the classic Karl Rove Republican playbook, he attacks her on her strongest points — management of the state’s education and foster care systems.

But Schmidt doesn’t make these accusations in the open air, where he can then answer questions about them.

Lots of candidates for higher office do similar things, of course. Campaign appearances aren’t necessarily announced to the news media. Questions for the candidate often go through campaign managers or press secretaries, who send along carefully crafted responses. Schmidt’s campaign does this, as does Kelly’s. But Kelly often appears in public anyway, and makes herself available for random questions.

This all strikes me as peculiar.

 

Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democratic candidate for re-election in November, visited Sporting Kansas City's soccer facility before answering questions Thursday about the state's job recovery from COVID-19. Republican gubernatorial nominee Derek Schmidt took exception to Kelly's claim the state restored 157,000 lost in the pandemic crash of March 2020. (Submitted)
Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democratic candidate for re-election in November, visited Sporting Kansas City’s soccer facility before answering questions this month about the state’s job recovery from COVID-19. (Submitted)

Difficult position

This approach puts news outlets throughout the state in a bind. Schmidt’s pronouncements against Kelly make news. He is, after all, the Republican candidate for governor and has a decent chance of winning the office.

But in reporting that news, Kansas Reflector and others can’t ask follow-up questions directly.

We can’t pressure the candidate to explain, exactly, how he might be better for education given his apparent support of former Gov. Sam Brownback during an era of draconian cuts. We can’t ask repeated follow-up questions about how he would have rebuilt the wreckage of the state’s foster care system, left in bleeding chunks by the wrecking ball of Brownback’s administration. We can’t demand that he answer to his fellow Kansans.

Readers, rightly, look at this situation and say: “Hey, what’s up? Isn’t this unfair?”

They’re right, to a degree. It is unfair, but not because of anything done by the state’s news media. The unfairness comes from the Schmidt campaign, which prefers to lob rhetorical grenades from the safety of a news release.

What do responsible news outlets do in response? They search out folks with alternate opinions. They include them in the stories about Schmidt’s charges. They attempt to show that the situation includes complexity and depth, affecting real people rather than poll numbers.

 

A groundhog holds a sign likening Attorney General Derek Schmidt to former Gov. Sam Brownback in front of Schmidt's office on Feb. 3. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
A groundhog holds a sign likening Attorney General Derek Schmidt to former Gov. Sam Brownback in front of Schmidt’s office on Feb. 3. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Abundant reasons

So why take this peculiar direction?

Schmidt’s campaign has good reason to conceal the candidate behind a carefully curated social media feed showcasing interactions with everyday voters. He’s attempting to split the difference between a wholehearted embrace for former President Donald Trump — he features the orange one’s endorsement on his all-red website — and assurances that he’s a commonsense, big-hearted, practical leader of the old school.

Is Schmidt running to represent the party that nominated walking punchline Kobach as its attorney general candidate? Or is he running to lead the state that rejected an anti-abortion constitutional amendment by nearly 20 percentage points?

Think of all the uncomfortable, no-win questions that could be asked.

What does Schmidt really think of abortion rights? His website touts pro-life endorsements and claims that “Kansas must remain a state that puts things like faith, family, and freedom first.” So what does that mean, precisely? When does he believe life begins? What specifically does he think the state should do to protect it? (Whatever that might be, it’s apparently not expanding Medicaid.)

Does he believe the state’s elections are safe and secure? You might recall that earlier this year he declared Kansas elections were “solid.” His comments at a party forum were taped and shared with Kansas Reflector. They directly contradict the conspiracy minded in his own party. Does he agree or disagree with them, and why? Does he believe Joe Biden was legitimately elected president?

His staff might see such questions as unfair and biased, but with independent candidate Dennis Pyle claiming there’s no distance between the Democratic and Republican campaigns, they’re more than justified.

Voters will be interested too.

 

Dennis Pyle and running mate Kathleen Garrison deliver signatures Monday at the Secretary of State's Office for a place on the November ballot as an independent candidate for governor. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Dennis Pyle and running mate Kathleen Garrison deliver signatures Monday at the Secretary of State’s Office for a place on the November ballot as an independent candidate for governor. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Changes afoot

Sooner or later, Schmidt will emerge. With the traditional kickoff of campaigning after Labor Day, he has no choice.

No matter the minefields, the benefits outweigh the potential costs. Schmidt has a seasoned political background, not to mention a journalism degree from the University of Kansas. He knows how to speak in public and avoid making a fool of himself. Indeed, he’s a strong candidate for governor because of his “aw shucks” attitude and regular-guy persona.

All of the questions mentioned above remain. The need to delicately balance between rightwing agitprop and popular moderation endures. To defeat Kelly, Schmidt will need to be embraced both by folks who voted “yes” and “no” on the amendment question, while fending off that pesky challenge from the far, far right.

After a summer spent arguing about abortion rights, perhaps the attorney general and those around him have correctly understood that everyone wants a bit of a break from politics.

But he can’t level attacks on Kelly from afar indefinitely.

He can’t go without responding directly to questions in the public interest.

He will need to stand in front of the assembled Kansas press corps and say what he really believes and why. He will need to answer the most important question of all, the one that motivates his entire campaign. Why should he, and not Kelly, be governor of Kansas?

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting 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, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Most recently, Clay spent nearly 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.

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