National Journal’s take on Kansas governor’s race: ‘What’s the matter with Kansas?’

Evaluation points to Schmidt’s ‘lackluster’ campaign, Kelly’s ‘kitchen-table’ focus

By: - September 30, 2022 12:51 pm
National Journal's updated assessment of the Kansas governor's race points to Attorney General Derek Schmidt's "lackluster campaign" and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly's focus on "kitchen-table" issues and the August rejection by Kansas voters of the abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

National Journal’s updated assessment of the Kansas governor’s race points to Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s “lackluster campaign” and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s focus on “kitchen-table” issues and the August rejection by Kansas voters of the abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The National Journal’s updated analysis of compelling gubernatorial campaigns raised questions about evolution of the tight race between Republican nominee Derek Schmidt and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Kelly, who was elected governor in 2018 after defeating Republican Kris Kobach, began her reelection campaign in red-state Kansas as a likely underdog against the state’s three-term GOP attorney general. In May and again Thursday, Hotline’s Gubernatorial Power Rankings listed the Kansas governor’s race among 10 most likely to flip from one party to the other.

However, Hotline concluded Schmidt’s “lackluster campaign and poor fundraising” had yet to excite the Republican base and noted there was anxiety among some GOP insiders Schmidt would “leave a winnable race on the table.”

“The race will be tight, but Kelly is in a much stronger position now than she was just a few months ago,” Hotline’s revised assessment said. “What’s the matter with Kansas? According to some national GOP strategists, it’s the Republican nominee, Derek Schmidt.”

Joanna Rodriguez, spokesperson with the Republican Governors Association, responded to the National Journal’s assessment of the race 40 days ahead of the Nov. 8 vote by affirming the organization’s support for Schmidt. The RGA, which has concentrated its advertising in Kansas on the issue of transgender athletes, said Schmidt stood out as an established critic of President Joe Biden.

“The RGA knows Kansans want and deserve a governor like Derek Schmidt who is not only aligned with their values, but also a proven fighter against Joe Biden’s radical agenda,” Rodriguez said.

NBC News reported on data from ad-tracking firm AdImpact that showed nearly $10 million in advertising tied to the Kansas governor’s race had been booked through the election. Democrats have invested $5 million on behalf of Kelly, while Republicans put down $4.8 million for Schmidt.

The National Journal’s updated analysis of the Kansas governor’s race indicated Gov. Laura Kelly, appearing here on debate stage at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson, had strengthened her position since May in a tight contest against GOP nominee Derek Schmidt. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Hotline assessment followed release of a FOX4 survey by Emerson College Polling conducted from Sept. 15-18 showing Kelly was favored among 44.6% and Schmidt the preference of 43.1% of people participating in that poll. Independent candidate Dennis Pyle, a lifelong member of the GOP until launching his bid for governor, had 3%. The margin between Schmidt and Kelly was within the poll’s 3% margin of error.

The opinion polling entity FiveThirtyEight’s modeling of the Kansas governor’s race indicated in 100 hypothetical elections Kelly would prevail in 66 and Schmidt in 34. FiveThirtyEight concluded Kelly was “slightly favored” to win.

Emma O’Brien, spokesperson for the Kansas Democratic Party, said the National Journal evaluation was published while Kelly expanded the roster of endorsements from Republicans and Schmidt battled with Pyle for support among the state’s conservative voters. She repeated the Kelly campaign’s effort to link Schmidt with former Gov. Sam Brownback, who resigned in 2018 to work for President Donald Trump.

“It’s clear Schmidt is having trouble escaping his record of standing behind Sam Brownback and his failed ‘tax experiment’ that tanked our economy, underfunded public schools and stole billions from our roads and bridges. Voters from all political parties don’t trust Schmidt, and it shows,” O’Brien said.

Hotline said Kelly focused her reelection campaign on “kitchen-table issues like the economy and education. Her successful navigation around the culture wars has frustrated Republicans.”

That sentiment compelled the RGA to repeatedly invest in commercials highlighting Kelly’s veto of bills that would have required transgender women to compete in school and college sports programs based on their male gender at birth, Hotline said.

Hotline said the political landscape shifted with the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, which for 50 years guaranteed women a right to abortion across the country. The Dobbs decision propelled some states to impose new restrictions on abortion.

In Kansas, the issue of abortion rights was amplified when voters in August overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would declare women didn’t possess a right to bodily autonomy and abortion. The amendment was defeated by more than 172,000 votes in that primary election.

“While it is still an open question whether those who voted in favor of abortion access will also support Kelly,” Hotline said, “it is certainly proof that the issue is a mobilizing one here.”

Thirty-six races for governor will be decided this year. Sixteen seats are held by Democrats, including 13 with incumbents on the ballot and three open seats. Republicans are defending 16 incumbent governors and four open seats.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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