In a 90-minute debate, Laura Kelly and Derek Schmidt weren’t just in different worlds. They were in different universes.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and her challenger, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, showed up for two different debates Saturday morning at the Kansas State Fair.
The 90-minute exchange was an opportunity for Kelly to lean into her four-year record as governor. A longtime state legislator, she dug into the opportunity to explain her accomplishments and deep policy knowledge. Schmidt, while serving more than 10 years as A.G., took the opportunity to present a hardnosed conservative case. While taking the occasional dig at Kelly, he framed the election as a referendum on President Joe Biden.
Schmidt began his opening statement by talking about his family roots in Kansas but quickly pivoted, accusing Kelly of spending $6 billion more of “your money” over the past four years.
Kelly’s opener focused on the positive.
“We recruited some of the largest employers in the country to come to Kansas,” she said, then noted several tax cuts she signed into law.
She also claimed that “we have restored a sense of civility” in state government, which may have gone better if the Schmidt cheering section at the Peoples Bank and Trust Arena didn’t immediately jeer her.
On the other hand, Schmidt’s first mention of “big government socialism” drew overwhelming laughter from Kelly’s supporters.
He repeated the phrase at least two more times.
That was how most of the debate went. Schmidt deployed focus-tested red meat to his conservative audience. His crowd, in turn, chanted “lockdown Laura” whenever appropriate (and sometimes when it wasn’t). State Rep. Patrick Penn, beyond animated, led much of the cheering and added commentary on his own.
Kelly, for her part, was reserved and poised. Perched on a box to appear the same height as her towering opponent, she praised the work of state agencies working on children’s wellbeing. Responding to COVID-19 criticism, she said: “I will never apologize for protecting the lives of our children.” Her supporters appeared more numerous and animated than Schmidt’s, perhaps making up for their candidate’s reserve.
Schmidt needled his opponent with mentions of Biden and inflation, delivered in an exaggerated country-boy drawl. But Kelly ignored the bait over and over, either returning to the question being asked or her record on jobs and rebuilding state government.
The key point of the debate, to this watcher, came after a pointed exchange over KanCare.
Kelly accused the GOP-controlled Legislature of blocking expansion, while Schmidt repeated some stale bromides about government-run health care and accused her of being “an ineffective leader who can’t get things done.”
That finally turned up Kelly’s cool internal thermostat. She listed various bipartisan achievements and then leveled an exasperated, devastating blow: “I’ve got to ask you, Derek, do you really think we were better off under Sam Brownback?”
The debate shifted at that point. The former governor, he of the devastating income tax “experiment,” was one of the least popular politicians in the country before leaving office. Kelly’s campaign has gone out of its way to tie Schmidt to Brownback, and the attack landed hard. The attorney general didn’t even respond.
While Schmidt continued his sharp rhetoric, the governor kept scoring points, both in an abortion exchange and in a vivid closing statement.
Schmidt, on the other hand, repeated the “big government socialism” line and mentioned both Biden and former President Barack Obama during his summation. Don’t worry, though: For those who might be unsettled by the harsh tone, Schmidt assured them that he was a “Bob Dole Republican.”
I doubt this debate changed many minds. That’s not what debates do, not usually.
But it did clarify the candidates and their strategies as we head into the fall. Schmidt sees his most important task as tearing down Kelly’s claims as a bipartisan, effective, low-key leader. Kelly believes she needs to sell the notable successes of her term — education funding, the Panasonic megaproject — and promise more of the same.
Meanwhile, the Kansas State Fair gathered steam outside the arena. Passers-by peeked inside curiously while waiting for corn dogs and funnel cakes.
“What’s going on here?” one child asked his mother.
“Oh, it’s going to be a speech,” she said. And they kept walking.
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