Schmidt’s Kansas campaign message: Listen to Virginia, Florida, New Jersey and Kentucky

October 5, 2022 3:33 am
Derek Schmidt appears onstage

Derek Schmidt's message as he runs for Kansas governor? Listen to the leaders of other states besides Kansas. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Attorney General Derek Schmidt seems to believe that the pathway to the Kansas governor’s office involves making the race this fall as little about Kansas as possible.

What else would you call the appearances with the governors from distant states like Virginia, Florida and New Jersey? Why would Schmidt highlight his stance against transgender students by appearing with a collegiate swimmer from Kentucky?

I won’t deny that Glenn Youngkin, Ron DeSantis and Chris Christie attract attention. But they’re national Republican stars (the first two more than the third, perhaps). They’re not Kansas fixtures. They’re part of an apparent strategy by Schmidt to nationalize the governor’s race at all costs, as pundits shake their heads at the state of his campaign.

So here comes Youngkin, who won an attention-grabbing race in Virginia last year by highlighting education issues and keeping his distance from former President Donald Trump.

“The headwater that started in Virginia — this red wave — is now cresting through Kansas,” Youngkin told the crowd at Hayward’s Pit Bar B Que in Shawnee, according to the Kansas City Star’s Jonathan Shorman. “It’s your time to pick up the surf board. It’s your time to do the work. It’s your time to elect Derek Schmidt.”

Perhaps Youngkin should be reminded that Kansas is landlocked. Not a lot of calls for surf boards in these parts.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis endorsed Attorney General Derek Schmidt's campaign for Kansas governor Sunday during an Olathe rally. Schmidt is campaigning against Gov. Laura Kelly and two other candidates. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis endorsed Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s campaign for Kansas governor Sunday during an Olathe rally. Schmidt is campaigning against Gov. Laura Kelly and two other candidates. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

And here comes Florida’s DeSantis, who made news recently by flying migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard as part of a political stunt-turned-legal action.

“Part of the reason I’m here is because if you look over the last few years governors have been more important to peoples’ freedoms than ever before,” he told the audience at a rally in Olathe. “You saw this here in Kansas and they saw it in California, New York and Illinois and all these states where you had leftist governors locking people down. In Florida, we lifted people up.”

Yes, lifting your state’s population up into the COVID-19-ridden air definitely deserves note. As does exposing your LGBTQ students to hate and discrimination.

But Schmidt isn’t done with the governors who can’t tell Garden City from Gardner.

The Kansas GOP kicks off its 2022 bus tour on Wednesday in Topeka. According to the Schmidt campaign, the roster includes numerous state Republican candidates and a special guest. Who might that be, you ask. Newt Gingrich? John Boehner? The ghost of Ronald Reagan? Nope, it’s former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Chris Christie! You might remember him as the man who briefly dethroned former Gov. Sam Brownback as the least popular governor in the entire United States. He also had something to do with closing a bridge.

When you add in the testimony of Riley Gaines, the former University of Kentucky swimmer who opposes the participation of transgender women in college sports, Schmidt enjoys unparalleled backing of people whose connection to Kansas comes down to political expediency.

Meanwhile, a handful of high-profile Kansas Republicans have recently made their voices heard. Former GOP Govs. Mike Hayden and Bill Graves, along with former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, all weighed in on the governor’s race. They decided to endorse Democratic incumbent Laura Kelly.

Former Gov. Mike Hayden, a Republican who also served as Kansas House speaker, endorsed Democratic Gov. Laura's Kelly's reelection over Republican nominee Derek Schmidt, the state's attorney general. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Gov. Laura Kelly's YouTube post)
Former Gov. Mike Hayden, a Republican who also served as Kansas House speaker, endorsed Democratic Gov. Laura’s Kelly’s reelection over Republican nominee Derek Schmidt, the state’s attorney general. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Gov. Laura Kelly’s YouTube post)

As I wrote last month after watching Kelly and Schmidt go head-to-head at the Kansas State Fair debate, the two candidates don’t just come from different parties. They’re speaking from different realities. Kelly has a largely positive message centered on economic growth. Now and then she will remind audiences of the historic Aug. 2 vote upholding abortion rights.

Schmidt has set his sights on “big government socialism” and the kind of issues that folks agitate themselves about in Facebook comments sections. The bus tour I just mentioned? It’s called “Fire Kelly, Fire Pelosi.” The dated slogan itself admits that the party has challenges in focusing solely on the incumbent governor.

They might as well urge Kansans to “Fire Kelly, Imprison Hillary.” How about “Fire Kelly, Impeach Obama”?

Over the last several decades, politics have become steadily less local. The viewership numbers for Fox and MSNBC surely prove that partisans want a diet of easily digestible ideology. The Kansas tradition of electing — and reelecting — moderate Democrats as governor may be on its last legs.

If he wins, Schmidt’s strategy will look wise. He will have understood that the Kansans’ mood was set on the national level, by conservative stars and commentators.

But if he loses, critics will surely look at Kelly’s approach and wonder why the attorney general let her get away with a back-to-basics message of economic empowerment and bipartisan governing.

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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.