The campaign for Kansas governor takes form of a stage debate with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Republican gubernatorial nominee Derek Schmidt, but also features more than 40 commercials designed to disparage. (Jill Hummels for the Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — The battle between distortion and nuance rages in the Kansas gubernatorial race as dozens of commercials flood television and the internet in a quest to influence voters’ views of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Republican challenger Derek Schmidt.
In the last few days, independent governor candidate Dennis Pyle added his voice to the electronic dialogue with his first piece of campaign advertising. It predictably attacked both Schmidt and Kelly as “two peas in a pod.”
Schmidt, the state’s attorney general, has joined allies in taking swings at Kelly by asserting the governor cavalierly closed pubic schools in response to the COVID-19 national emergency. It’s as if Schmidt wanted voters to imagine Kelly personally padlocking chains to school doors.
These ads don’t remind Kansans of life-or-death uncertainty about COVID-19 that existed in March 2020 when Kelly directed local and state officials to transition the education system to online instruction. In that moment, there was no testing, no personal protection equipment and no vaccine to counter a lethal virus easily spread at mass gatherings.
In response to criticism of being the first governor to suspend in-school classes, Kelly said she would “never apologize for protecting the lives of our children.”
Throughout the campaign, Kelly and her allies have worked to tattoo Schmidt as a clone of former Gov. Sam Brownback, an unpopular Republican who derailed the state budget with a fantasy quest to eliminate Kansas’ income tax. Brownback’s strangulation of state government’s revenue stream led to years of budget problems, deep spending cuts and, ironically, tax hikes.
Kansas Values Institute’s PAC, which backs Kelly, has produced no less than eight commercials devoted to affirming a Brownback-Schmidt ideological alliance.
A comparable guilt-by-association approach was used four years ago in Kelly’s successful campaign against Republican nominee Kris Kobach. The messaging was given a boost by Kobach, who promised to surpass Brownback’s zeal for slashing taxes and spending.
Schmidt, of course, hasn’t promised to recharge Brownback’s disproven tax agenda, which was repealed in 2017 by the GOP-led Legislature after a dismal five-year experiment.
Advertising wordsmiths have dedicated themselves to interpreting positions of Schmidt and Kelly on whether transgender women or girls in elementary, middle school, high school and college should be banned by Kansas law from sports programs.
Schmidt said as governor he would sign legislation requiring participation to be based on a person’s gender at birth, which would disregard rights of Kansans who transitioned.
The Republican Governor’s Association PAC put it a different way, declaring Kelly opposed reasonable “efforts to ban men from competing against girls in high school sports.”
Kelly said Schmidt and his allies were distorting her veto of two “discriminatory” transgender sports bills and her belief athletic associations, including the NCAA, should set policy on student participation in sports.
“You may have seen my opponent’s attacks,” Kelly said in her latest campaign commercial. “So, let me just say it. Of course, men should not play girls sports.”
Schmidt’s campaign howled and the GOP nominee declared “she’s wrong to mislead Kansans about her real position.”
Packing a punch
The Republican Governor’s Association PAC has contributed to the Kansas conversation with seven commercials. The roster featured a piece blaming Kelly for rising crime. The ad was problematic because it relied on alarming footage of a smash-and-grab store robbery in California — not Kansas.
The Kansas Democratic Party posted to Twitter a video of Schmidt declaring: “What good does it do to fully fund schools?” That endless loop snippet didn’t contain the rest of Schmidt’s sentence: “… if you turn around and lock the children out of them?”
C.J. Grover, spokesman for the Schmidt campaign, said the Twitter item should be considered “misinformation” and reflected a “flailing and desperate” campaign.
He said the GOP nominee pledged to fund public education as required by the Kansas Constitution. However, Republicans in the state Legislature have eagerly sought election of a GOP governor who would be more friendly to reform in state financing of public schools, including diversion of tax dollars to private schools.
— Kansas Dems (@KansasDems) September 23, 2022
Emma O’Brien, spokesperson for the state Democratic Party, said there was good reason Schmidt didn’t want a spotlight directed at his record of supporting reductions in state aid to K-12 public school districts.
“It’s no surprise that Derek Schmidt and his team are panicking about Kansans learning the truth about his record,” O’Brien said. “After supporting a bill that underfunded schools in the state Senate and defending Brownback’s tax cuts to public schools as attorney general, he’s already proven that he can’t be trusted when it comes to fully funding public education. He can say whatever he wants during an election year, but the facts don’t lie.”
Put your helmets on
The volume and variety of Kansas gubernatorial commercials — embedded with questionable claims, out-of-context conclusions and misleading statements — could escalate ahead of the Nov. 8 election. The objective would be to influence the cadre of undecided voters across Kansas who might be susceptible to a well-crafted, timely attack ad.
The latest polling indicated Kelly held a small edge over Schmidt, but the gap was within the margin of error. Such a competitive race could convince organizations invested in the governor’s race to continue spending in a bid to move the needle.
More than 40 campaign ads tied to the Kansas governor’s contest have surfaced so far. In addition to the big spenders, contributors included the Democratic Governor’s Association PAC and groups known as Our Way of Life and Get Back to Work. Others that haven’t revealed themselves could break through in the final weeks of the race.
Schmidt and Kelly have released 15 commercials, and Pyle, the independent candidate for governor, last week dropped his first ad.
The conservative state senator from Hiawatha took a swipe at voting records of Schmidt and Kelly, who both served in the Kansas Senate, on a series of bills proponents believed useful in cracking down on illegal immigration.
“Derek Schmidt thinks he has you fooled,” Pyle’s spot says. “He doesn’t want you to know his bad votes on illegal immigration. No surprise, he voted every time with his buddy — Democrat Laura Kelly. Two peas in a pod.”
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