A panel at the Dole Institute of Politics conclude Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s centrist philosophy, focus on kitchen-table issues and the sustained TV assault on former Gov. Sam Brownback were too much for Republican nominee Derek Schmidt to overcome in November. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
LAWRENCE — Gov. Laura Kelly devoted the final day of her reelection campaign against Republican Derek Schmidt to low-key visits to the towns of Paxico, Alma, Harveyville and Alta Vista in Wabaunsee County.
The largely rural county west of Topeka was where her unorthodox door-to-door campaigning in 2004 provided a 39-vote margin of victory in her first campaign for Kansas Senate. On Nov. 7, Kelly’s nostalgia tour in the county included a chat with an elderly veteran grateful for her help financing a public swimming pool. The mayor of Harveyville reminded Kelly of her assistance with the town’s recovery from a tornado.
During lunch at Barnyard Cafe in Alta Vista, Kelly was asked to make an unscheduled stop at an elementary school. She accepted.
“We walked into a sixth-grade classroom and the teacher said: ‘Who is this?’ said Shelbi Dantic, Kelly’s campaign manager. “From the back of the classroom somebody goes, ‘Laura Kelly.’ That’s what $7.5 million on TV will buy you.”
Dantic said the one-day excursion highlighted the value of political advertising but also illustrated the appeal of Kelly’s dedication as a senator and governor to constituent affairs. The exchanges affirmed Kelly was on the right track by concentrating on kitchen-table issues of economic development, taxes and education. She gained boots-on-the-ground insight into why voters shared confidence Kelly had done a solid job as governor in wake of budget calamities created during the prior administration of GOP Gov. Sam Brownback.
And, she said, those interactions provided a sense Schmidt’s campaign was in trouble in a state with 874,000 registered Republicans, 543,000 registered independents and 518,000 registered Democrats.
“We did define Schmidt before he was able to get up on TV and define himself. We defined him as Sam Brownback 2.0. Kansas voters really remembered what Brownback’s governorship had done,” Dantic said.
The Robert Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas brought together Tuesday a panel of campaign staff, political scientists, a journalist and a political action committee director to conduct a postmortem on the race narrowly won by Kelly in November.
Kelly defeated Republican nominee Schmidt in a showdown colored by presence on the ballot of independent candidate Dennis Pyle, a conservative state senator, and Libertarian Party nominee Seth Cordell. Kelly prevailed with 49.54% of the vote to Schmidt’s 47.33%. Pyle tallied 2.03%, with Cordell at 1.1%. In other words, the outcome could have been different had Schmidt captured a bit more than two-thirds of votes logged for Pyle and Cordell.
C.J. Grover, campaign manager for Schmidt, said the Pyle campaign was a thorn in the side of Schmidt’s race against an incumbent governor who had the advantage of deeper financial resources. He said Schmidt focused on inflation, education, crime and Kelly’s ties to President Joe Biden, in addition to fire-up-the-base cultural issues of abortion and transgender athletes.
“We talked a lot about the governor’s record, and ultimately I think the biggest problem was the large amount of money spent talking about Sam Brownback’s record,” Grover said.
The Kelly campaign earmarked $7.5 million for television that primarily delivered messages about Kelly’s positives. The Kansas Values Institute, which is supported by the Democratic Governors Association and dark-money contributors, invested $17.5 million in television, online and mail messaging aimed at damaging Schmidt. Much of the Kansas Values Institute’s investment was crafted to portray Schmidt as the second coming of Brownback, who was among the nation’s least popular governors when he resigned in 2018 to work in the administration of President Donald Trump.
“I don’t think it was unfair to tie the two of them together,” said Evan Gates, executive director of the Kansas Values Institute since 2019.
Grover said the effort to define Schmidt as a Brownback clone began in earnest in spring 2022, at a time when Schmidt didn’t have the money to fight back on television’s big stage. He said the Schmidt campaign spent $2 million to $3 million on television during the campaign. He said the Republican Governors Association, a major Schmidt benefactor, was outspent by the Kansas Values Institute.
He said it was frustrating to deal with the toxic public perception of Brownback, who hasn’t been on a Kansas ballot in eight years. He also said the Schmidt campaign would have preferred to counter the Brownback assault by broadcasting commercials associating Kelly with the unpopular Biden, but he didn’t indicate there was an early effort to publicly put distance between Schmidt and Brownback.
“We had some internal conversations about going up on television, but the reality of the matter is at that point we were still operating in a world where we might still get a primary challenge,” Grover said about the pre-August phase of the campaign. “We did some simple math, and we didn’t really have the budget to go up as a campaign. When you are the underdog, you have less resources.”
Patrick Miller, political science professor at the University of Kansas, said Schmidt and Kelly had sufficient financial backing to get their messages out to potential voters. He said analysis of the race should concentrate on the substance of that messaging.
He said Schmidt appeared to abandon the moderate middle of the electorate across Kansas. It played to Kelly’s strength among swing voters, specifically those who identified themselves as Republicans but not as conservatives, he said.
“That speaks a little bit to that appeal she ultimately ended up having across ideological and partisan divides,” Miller said.
In addition, Miller said, there was no way to prove Pyle and Cordell were spoilers for Schmidt’s campaign. He said the more significant question would be to dig into reasons why Kansans who voted for President Donald Trump in 2020 also cast a vote for Kelly in 2022.
Grover said the Schmidt campaign would have preferred Pyle be a candidate for the GOP nomination for governor in the August primary rather than complete the petition process to be an independent candidate on the November ballot. He complained that Democrats and union organizers helped with Pyle’s petition drive. During the fall election, Pyle attacked Kelly and Schmidt regularly.
“Fundamentally, there was nothing to be done from our vantage point because Sen. Pyle is just sort of his own person. He doesn’t work with anybody. He doesn’t listen to anybody,” Grover said. “From our perspective, it was obviously a problem. It’s not like we were running hard to the middle or liberal on issues in the campaign.”
Grover offered no apology for Schmidt’s focus on wedge issues of transgender athletes, LGBTQ issues and abortion. Kelly had vetoed a bill requiring athletes to compete in accordance with their gender at birth. Kansas voters soundly defeated in August a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that could have led to greater restriction of abortion rights or an outright ban.
He said the general idea was for Schmidt to mirror heavy support in rural areas that helped drive U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican, to victory in 2020 despite being outspent by Democrat Barbara Bollier. Schmidt also sought to carry Sedgwick County and minimize a loss in Johnson County, but neither of those goals were met.
In addition, Grover said, Schmidt was counting on a boost from the national red wave of campaign success among Republicans, which didn’t fully materialize.
“Our strategy was to simply provide a strong conservative alternative to Governor Kelly’s first four years,” Grover said. “Rather than a referendum on Laura Kelly, the Kansas Values Institute made it a referendum on Sam Brownback. That’s ultimately not where we wanted this race to be.”
In the end, Kelly in 2022 outperformed Biden of 2020 in all the state’s 105 counties. She surpassed Biden by double digits in 53 counties. In the state’s most populous county, Johnson County, she did 5.9% better than Biden. In Russell County, the home of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Dole, she beat Biden’s performance by 15.3%.
Dantic, Kelly’s campaign manager, said endorsements of the Democratic governor by prominent Republicans created a “permission structure” under which Republicans could vote for Kelly. The GOP endorsements came from former Govs. Bill Graves and Mike Hayden, former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, former Attorneys General Robert Stephan and Carla Stovall as well as dozens other Republicans.
Grover said the endorsements by these so-called Republicans were discounted by GOP activists because those individuals hadn’t backed Republican candidates in the past.
“We went into this race thinking it would be nice to have those folks on the sideline or come back,” he said. “We tried to win endorsements from everybody.”
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