Supporters of Gov. Laura Kelly cheer at an election night watch party in downtown Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
One piece of advice for the Kansas GOP springs to mind after this year’s elections: Don’t underestimate women.
Be it Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, the women who ran the campaign to preserve abortion rights, or Kansas voters who turned out to cast their ballots, women defined our state’s balance of power in 2022. Heck, even on the Republican side, moderate Insurance Commissioner Vicki Schmidt earned the most statewide votes of any candidate.
In the old boys’ club that is the Kansas Statehouse, “women’s issues” have been dismissed or written off for years. So have women themselves. Abortion rights saw repeated restrictions. Medicaid expansion was cruelly blocked. LGBTQ children faced legislative bullying. Courts finally stepped in to ensure K-12 education funding.
After an election that at first sounded quiet but actually thundered with determination, perhaps legislators will listen.
The women who ran — and the women who voted — can’t be ignored.
Kelly the conqueror
Kelly was underestimated in 2018, when she ran for governor the first time. Shortly after her inauguration, Republicans scoffed that she didn’t have a true mandate (translated: She wasn’t a man). She was underestimated as she served her first term, navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and adversarial relations with a GOP Legislature. She was underestimated in her reelection campaign.
No one should underestimate her anymore, not after her defeat of Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
Schmidt, to the surprise of many, ran as an empty suit stuffed with crude culture war slogans. You would scarcely know he had served a dozen years as attorney general and in the state Senate before that. You would scarcely know he worked for beloved Kansas moderate Republican U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum. But you would know, based on the campaign’s messaging, that he was very concerned about people dressing in drag.
Meanwhile, Kelly stuck with a disciplined message about funding education, cutting the food sales tax and growing the state’s economy. It surely didn’t hurt that Panasonic announced plans over the summer to open a $4 billion electric battery facility in De Soto, along with 4,000 new jobs. And wouldn’t you know it? Kelly and fellow leaders broke ground for the plant a mere six days before the fall election.
The governor angered progressives along the way. She signed a Republican-driven bill banning “sanctuary cities” and showed health secretary Lee Norman the door after his outspoken public health message became a COVID-19 era political liability.
The question for Democrats across Kansas always was: Sure, that might be disappointing, but will you really vote for Schmidt instead?
Repeatedly, last year and this, I wrote about Kelly’s political smarts. Watching her closely over the months, I became convinced that she was able to execute big plays when needed and consistently conveyed fundamental decency. She wasn’t loud or outspoken or authoritarian, which happens to be how GOP men show their dominance. Perhaps that’s why they couldn’t imagine that she would beat their nominee again.
Davids the dominator
Davids also was underestimated this year, with the state Legislature rigging maps to ensure her defeat at the hands of a Republican candidate. Davids instead powered ahead to a conclusive win against Amanda Adkins.
For Republicans in Kansas, Democrats winning national office grates. It sets their dentures on edge. That’s why former Senate President Susan Wagle declared in 2020 that Republicans needed a Statehouse supermajority to drive Davids out of her 3rd District seat. The general public, advocates and reporters endured a sham process during which Republican legislative leaders rolled their eyes and checked their phones while claiming to solicit input on drawing new maps.
They broke Wyandotte County in two, hoping to dilute the 3rd District’s Democratic lean. The shoved progressive Lawrence into the rural 1st District, hoping to U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner’s 2nd District reliably red. That second move appears to have worked, even though Democrat Patrick Schmidt cleared 40% of the vote.
In the 3rd District, however, Republicans’ raw display of political gamesmanship blew up in their faces like a stick of dynamite held by Wile E. Coyote.
In 2020, Davids had defeated Adkins by 10 percentage points. She widened the margin to 12 percentage points this year, with a supposedly more conservative district.
The incumbent seized on Kansans’ earlier vote against abortion restrictions, as well as their lingering dislike of former Gov. Sam Brownback. Adkins, a former state GOP official with a record of outspoken anti-choice positions, was the perfect foil. And what’s this? She previously served as Brownback’s campaign manager? You couldn’t create a better opponent for Davids in a lab.
Kansas the outspoken
State voters planted the seeds for these wins back in August, when they defeated a state constitutional amendment that would have allowed for an abortion ban by nearly 20 points.
The women who won that campaign — among them Kansans for Constitutional Freedom’s Rachel Sweet and Ashley All — understood their state better than the Republicans who schemed to put fundamental rights on the ballot. They understood that personal freedoms and commonsense governing win elections. Extremism doesn’t.
The results on Tuesday could have been better in other regards.
Attorney General-elect Kris Kobach has committed to using his office as a political office against President Joe Biden. Republican supermajorities in the Statehouse will likely continued their frenzied pursuit of transgender people.
Late last month, I argued that Kansas Democrats could have highlighted abortion rights more in their fall campaigns. And the results suggest that a sizable number of would-be voters sat on the sidelines.
Roughly 60,000 fewer Kansans turned out to vote Nov. 8 than showed up four years ago, when Kelly and Davids won the first time.
Those folks, and their voices, could have added emphasis to the already clear message sent by the elections of Kelly and Davids. They could have made the difference in stopping Kobach and ending the GOP supermajorities in Topeka. They could have tightened margins in congressional races and shown U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran not to take reelection for granted.
For whatever reason, tens of thousands stayed away on Tuesday. As longtime political observers understand, however, no single vote resolves an issue or enshrines democracy for all time. Maintenance of our state and country requires continued effort.
The Kansas GOP underestimated women — female politicians, activists and voters. These women devoted themselves to making a difference. They succeeded. Let’s cherish that example.
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