Now what’s the matter with Kansas?

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and Attorney General Derek Schmidt
Associated Press/John Hanna
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, left, and fellow Democrats hope her strong approval ratings will carry her to victory over state Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R) in the traditionally red Sunflower State.

Kansas is no swing state. The landlocked expanse of farms and Protestant churches hasn’t supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, and hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since the 1930s. It inspired a 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” that foreshadowed the rise of anti-elite conservative populism that would carry Donald Trump to the presidency.

And yet, in a sense, Kansas is a swing state this year. The states already defied national expectations with this month’s vote on abortion. Its race for governor, likely to be one of the closest in the country, will test whether ticket-splitting in national and state elections — which put Republicans Mitt Romney and Charlie Baker in charge of Massachusetts, and Democrat Laura Kelly in the Kansas governor’s mansion — falls victim to today’s hyperpartisan, lockstep politics.

While pundits and reporters focus on governor’s races in swing states like Pennsylvania and Arizona, where MAGA Republicans Doug Mastriano and Kari Lake could gain control of election machinery, states like Kansas are important in both symbolic and substantive ways. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said nearly a century ago, states are the laboratories of democracy. And these laboratories produce better results when leaders compromise across party lines.

Take Romney’s 2006 market-based universal health care plan in Massachusetts. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions in California, the same year.

To look at a map of governors in 2006 is to step back in time to a much more politically flexible era. Democrats held the governorships of Wyoming, Oklahoma and West Virginia. Republicans were in charge in California, Minnesota and Rhode Island. The makeup of their states tempered these chief executives’ more partisan impulses, and the governors who sought the presidency, like Romney and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, were pragmatic problem-solvers.

Which brings us to Kansas. Although Kelly currently displays no presidential ambitions, she has calibrated her positions and message to the Kansas electorate. Last year, she broke from the Biden administration and other Democratic governors by opposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates. In a reelection ad earlier this year, the self-described “middle-of-the-road” governor was pictured meeting with former President Donald Trump — but not President Biden. Arguably her biggest first-term accomplishment was a compromise with the Republican-controlled state legislature to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, though the bill never reached a vote.

All of that may not be enough to save her job.

Forecasters rate the Kansas race the biggest tossup among gubernatorial contests. Kelly’s Republican opponent, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, is a standard-issue conservative who joined an unsuccessful legal challenge to the results of the 2020 presidential election. Schmidt touts his support from Trump, who won 56 percent of the Kansas vote that year.

Kansas is one of just four Democrat-led states that voted for Trump in 2020. The number of ticket-splitting states has diminished over time. In 2012, Romney won six states with Democratic governors.

Many of the nation’s most popular governors are moderate Republicans from Democratic states, like Baker in Massachusetts, Larry Hogan in Maryland and Phil Scott in Vermont. Baker and Hogan aren’t running this year and almost surely will be replaced by Democrats, which would leave Scott as the only Republican left running a solidly blue state. In addition to Kansas, Louisiana and Kentucky are the only Democrat-run states that have consistently voted Republican in recent national elections.

The trend refutes the old adage, “All politics is local.” As local news readership slips, governors are judged less on their records and more on their positions on hot-button national issues such as “election integrity,” abortion, gun control and COVID-19 policies. Governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis and South Dakota’s Kristi Noem have elevated their profiles not by discussing tax or education policy with reporters in Tallahassee or Pierre, but by going on Fox News to debate transgender student athletes or critical race theory.

In his campaign against Kelly, Schmidt is taking a page from their playbook. He appeared on “Fox & Friends” to denounce critical race theory, “fake news” and “cancel culture run amok,” and needled Kelly over border security.

In her reelection campaign, Kelly is running on what she calls her pragmatic, bipartisan record of responsibly funding schools, infrastructure and broadband. Her campaign website mentions neither Biden nor Trump. In short, it’s the kind of workaday, low-glitz state campaign that used to convince people to vote for different parties in national and state elections.

This year, that might not be enough.

James Nash served as press secretary for the National Governors Association from 2018 until February of this year. He is now is a senior vice president at ROKK Solutions.

This piece has been updated from an earlier version.

Tags 2022 Gubernatorial Races Biden COVID Critical race theory Derek Schmidt Donald Trump Joe Biden Kansas Laura Kelly Medicaid Mitt Romney trans rights

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