Kansas' Democratic governor set for bruising reelection fight

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) is heading into a political knife fight next year as Republicans in the state and nationally are looking to make her seat a top pick-up opportunity in the midterms.

Kelly caught lightning in a bottle to win her first term in 2018, running in a good year for Democrats against a deeply flawed GOP opponent to replace a Republican governor with approval ratings in the basement. But Republicans say they expect ruby-red Kansas to revert back to form next year, and even Democrats concede the stars are unlikely to align as well for Kelly a second time around.

“Of course she's vulnerable, she's a Democrat in Kansas,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas who is in touch with top Democrats in the state. “By definition, it's no better than 50-50. Maybe you might see her favored a little bit if things are really going well, but you also might see her down to almost any Republican who's not Kris Kobach.”

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Kelly, a former state senator for 14 years, won her 2018 race by defeating former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), a nationally polarizing figure who focused his campaign on railing against immigration and voter fraud and embracing then-President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE.

The Kansas Democrat is not expected to be as lucky in 2022. She will likely face off against either former Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) or Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R), neither of whom has as much baggage as Kobach did.

While Kelly’s allies maintain she has a path to a second term, Republicans are chomping at the bit to make her first term her last now that she lacks such an easy foil and faces an election cycle that is expected to favor the GOP.

“I think she's incredibly vulnerable as a sitting governor right now,” said Robert Blizzard, a GOP pollster who worked on Kansas Sen. Roger MarshallRoger W. MarshallAdvancing T-cell testing can help parents can make informed decisions on COVID vaccinations House GOP leaders say vaccine works but shouldn't be mandated Rand Paul introducing measure to repeal public transportation mask mandates MORE’s (R) 2020 campaign. “She is one of the few Democratic governors in a red state, and as a matter of fact, I can't even think of another incumbent Democratic governor in as red of a state at all, to be honest with you.”

Kansas’s deep conservative tilt was on full display in 2020 when Trump trounced now-President BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE by about 15 points in the state. Marshall also bested state Sen. Barbara Bollier (D) in a race for an open Senate seat by over 11 points even after Bollier raised about four times as much money as her Republican opponent.

Adding to the state’s already red tilt is the fact that the national environment is anticipated to favor the GOP.

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The party in the White House has traditionally suffered steep setbacks in the first midterm of a new administration, making next year’s atmosphere a 180-degre turn from the one that helped usher Kelly into power.

Republicans are confident that a GOP wave in the midterms will be more than enough to sink Kelly, particularly given her narrow win in 2018. On top of that, while the governor’s mansion has toggled between parties, no Democrat has won the governor’s mansion during an administration of the same party since 1978.

“I just emphasize what an incredible advantage it was for Laura Kelly to have that opponent,” said veteran Kansas GOP strategist David Kensinger, referencing Kobach. “And with all that, and a good national environment for Democrats, she won by 5 points.”

“If you look at the history of midterm elections in the United States, in this century, the last four presidential midterm elections have been wave elections,” he added. “So, they can argue what they like. Overall, the empirical data are not on the side of that argument.”

Beyond the structural headwinds Kelly is facing, she is also expected to face a messaging buzzsaw from Republicans who are looking to make her public enemy No. 1 in the state.

Kelly has engaged in a slew of battles with Republican legislators on a range of issues, including abortion and her executive power to order school and business closures during the pandemic. She’s also vetoed several prominent GOP messaging bills, including on a transgender sports ban and voting restrictions.

The legislature overrode her vote on the voting bill but could not do so on the transgender sports ban.

Colyer forecasted attacks on Kelly on a slate of issues, including casting her as the spark for a rise of abortions in Kansas. He also indicated he intends to hammer her particularly hard over decisions to shutter businesses and schools during the pandemic.

“People were upset with that. And so there's certainly going to be the lingering hangover of the closures across the state,” he told The Hill. “People are upset, but they're also wanting to go forward.”

Schmidt hit similar notes in his campaign launch, railing against business closures and Kelly's oversight of vaccine distribution.

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Despite the obstacles in her way, Democrats who spoke to The Hill were adamant that Kelly maintains a path to reelection using a playbook underscoring her role as a manager during a challenging time in the state.

Kelly’s campaign did not respond to requests for an interview with the governor, but Democrats suggested her reelection messaging could center around her support for Medicaid expansion, which has polled well in Kansas, and her handling of the economy during the coronavirus as employment there creeps above pre-pandemic levels.

“It'll be a bit of an uphill battle. But I believe that her record stands strong. She has pulled our state remarkably well through this pandemic. Economically, the state is actually doing quite well,” said Vicki Hiatt, chair of the Kansas Democratic Party. “So if people pay attention to the performance that she has done, there's no way to fault her work.”

"Governor Kelly is in a strong position for re-election because she’s a steady hand at the wheel who puts Kansas families and growing the economy first. Her pro-growth and inclusive leadership has the Kansas economy rapidly coming back and open for business, while she’s also fully funded public schools with bipartisan agreements for a third consecutive year,” added Democratic Governors Association Deputy Communications Director Sam Newton.

Kelly is expected to try to tie the GOP nominee to former Gov. Sam Brownback (R), who left office in 2018 to join the Trump administration after his approval rating hit dismal lows over a controversial tax cut program.

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Democrats said despite leaving office four years before the midterm, the former governor remains toxic in the state and could weigh down either Colyer, Brownback’s lieutenant governor, or Schmidt, who served as attorney general, a standalone elected office, during the Brownback years.

“We saw a huge amount of damage done during the Brownback years. Now that we're seeing that recover, it'll be helpful to just remind people that those policies,” Hiatt said.

Colyer swatted away those attack lines, arguing the broadsides will fall on deaf ears.

“Some people say that that's kind of an issue, but people have moved on and it didn't work the last time,” he said, referencing Republican successes in the 2020 races. “They're going to try to tie Derek or tie me to Sam. That's fine. But I have a record that is pretty strong, and I would contrast my personal record.”

Other Republicans agreed that attacks on Colyer or Schmidt would fail to land, and that while the race would still be competitive, the GOP would have an edge barring any major slip ups.

“Laura Kelly needs Republicans to make mistakes in order to win. It's not enough to say if she runs the best campaign she can run, she's going to win,” said Kensinger. “No, she could run the best campaign that she's capable of running and still lose.”

Democrats said one mistake they’re hoping for is a messy primary between Colyer and Schmidt. But Kensinger said he’s not too concerned the nominating contest will get ugly enough to bloody the ultimate nominee.

“It’s always possible,” he said. “It’s not keeping me up at night.”