TOPEKA, Kan., (AP) — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly narrowly won reelection in Republican-leaning Kansas by racking up big leads in the Kansas City area and other places where abortion rights are popular, while her party helped an independent candidate deny the GOP nominee a few crucial votes.
Kelly argued Wednesday that her victory over Republican challenger, three-term Attorney General Derek Schmidt, showed that voters wanted “no turning backward” after the state's finances greatly improved on her watch. She also attributed part of her victory to Kansans' support for abortion rights, which they affirmed in August by decisively rejecting a proposed anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution.
The independent candidate, state Sen. Dennis Pyle, won only a small percentage of the vote, but it was larger than the gap between Kelly and Schmidt as of Wednesday. Pyle, a former Republican, is among the Legislature's most conservative members, but Democrats helped get him on the ballot, and an out-of-state Democratic group used texts, mailings and radio ads in the final weeks to portray Pyle as the race's true conservative.
But the election results also showed that Republicans have a growing problem in the Kansas City suburbs in Johnson County, the state's most populous county. Kelly carried it by enough votes to offset much of Schmidt's strength in heavily GOP rural areas, and every Republican statewide except the incumbent insurance commissioner failed to win the county. Once a Republican bastion, it has become more Democratic as the GOP has become more conservative and embraced former President Donald Trump.
“One of the things I think that the Republican Party in Kansas is going to have to do going forward is work on its messaging in Johnson County, to get Johnson County voters into the fold," said Mike Kuckelman, the state GOP's chair and an area attorney. "I don't know exactly yet what that message is.”
Kelly's victory was a bitter defeat for Republicans. They had high hopes of ousting the only Democratic governor seeking reelection this year in a state that Trump won easily in 2020.
“The people of Kansas sent a very clear message at the polls yesterday. Kansans said we will keep moving forward as a state, full steam ahead – there will be no turning backward,” Kelly said Wednesday in a statement declaring victory.
In conceding Wednesday afternoon, Schmidt argued that Kansas residents are paying “excessive” taxes and the budget picture looks rosy only because inflation has swelled tax collections. Republicans sought repeatedly to tie Kelly to President Joe Biden and rising prices, as their candidates did with Democratic incumbents across the nation.
“If there is any disappointment beyond the immediate sting, it is having witnessed up close the concerning tendency of modern political discourse to veer away from discussing the great public issues we must solve together,” Schmidt said.
As of Wednesday, Kelly carried only eight of the state's 105 counties, but they included the five most populous ones.
Six of the eight counties she carried were in northeastern Kansas. They included Shawnee County, site of the state capital of Topeka, and Douglas County, a liberal bastion that is home to the main University of Kansas campus. The six counties in August voted 70% against the abortion measure, which would have allowed the GOP-controlled Legislature to greatly restrict or ban the procedure.
Kelly opposed the measure, and Schmidt backed it, as did other prominent Republicans. Christopher Reeves, a Kansas City-area Democratic activist and consultant and a former Democratic National Committee member, said abortion became an issue that drove home to moderate Republicans in the area that they don't fit in the GOP anymore.
"What carried her up here was radical Republicanism," he said.
Abortion rights supporters acknowledged before Tuesday's election that the energy they saw in the summer had faded. But state Sen. Cindy Holscher, a Kansas City-area Democrat, said abortion access probably played a bigger role there than elsewhere.
Independent and moderate Republicans were key, having swung to Kelly in 2018 in her race against then-Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a nationally known hardline provocateur on immigration and voter ID issues who was elected to be the state's new attorney general. Republicans were counting on voters' frustration with the economy to pull those voters back into their fold.
Holscher said in the last month of the campaign, voters shifted toward economic issues, and Democrats had to discuss them. But, she said, Kelly did well by emphasizing issues such as the state's greater funding for public schools on her watch and successes in luring new businesses and getting businesses to expand.
“Derek had a hard time gaining traction,” Holscher said.
But even with Kelly's victory, Republicans are headed toward keeping their supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Outside the governor-lieutenant governor ticket, Republicans hold the other four statewide offices and U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids remains the only Democrat in the state's congressional delegation.
And that had Kuckelman blaming Pyle for Schmidt's defeat.
“Pyle was a pawn; he was used by the Democrats, and he's a fool for what he did,” Kuckelman said. “Derek Schmidt was completely electable.”
Pyle pushed back against such criticism, saying Schmidt underperformed compared to other GOP candidates. He said in a statement that his campaign told Republicans that, "Kansas needed a strong conservative candidate.”
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