This red-state Democratic governor is a top GOP target in November

The race to occupy the Kansas governor’s mansion is hitting a crucial stretch ahead of next week’s primary as Republicans increasingly see it as a top flip opportunity going into November. The Aug. 2 primary, which will likely pit incumbent Gov. Laura Kelly (D) against state Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R) in the general election, has seen the GOP apparatus and outside groups investing heavily in the traditionally red state. 

Republicans point to the national mood threatening Democrats and what they say is Kelly’s weakness as a candidate. The Republican Governors Association (RGA) has run a number of ads hitting Kelly, while various groups that endorsed her or stayed neutral in 2018 have gotten behind Schmidt. 

But Democrats caution that the red-state Democratic governor will not be that easy to beat, given her advantage as an incumbent and growing voter frustration over the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. 

“I think she’s done generally a good job as a Democrat in a Republican state,” said one Republican familiar with the governor’s race. 

“She’s vulnerable because it’s Kansas,” the Republican said, pointing to the state’s conservative political history. 

Former President Trump won the state by just over 14 points in 2020 and by 20 points in 2016. Additionally, the state has not been represented by a Democrat in the Senate since 1939.  

But Kelly won her race for the governor’s mansion four years ago, defeating Republican nominee Kris Kobach by 5 points. Independent candidate Greg Orman received 6.5 percent of the vote.  

Republicans argue that Kelly was able to win that election due largely in part to controversies surrounding Kobach, who embraced Trump and zeroed in on issues like voter fraud and immigration. 

This time around, the party appears poised to go all in on the Sunflower State. The RGA has run three ads in Kansas, while its affiliated group Get Families Back to Work has also launched ads hitting Kelly and tying her to President Biden.  

“Kansans are ready for a governor that will put them first and fight the failures of Joe Biden and national Democrats, not welcome them like Kelly has,” said Joanna Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the RGA.  

The GOP has pointed to a number of endorsements from groups that have moved away from Kelly since 2018. Last month, the Kansas Fraternal Order of Police, the state’s top law enforcement group, announced it was endorsing Schmidt’s campaign four years after it originally backed Kelly.  

Meanwhile, groups like the Kansas State Troopers Association and the Kansas Farm Bureau endorsed Schmidt after staying neutral in 2018. 

“They didn’t activate their networks for Kobach in 2018 and they are now doing so now for Schmidt,” the GOP operative said. “That only increases the mobilization effort on the ground and allows people to get more engaged than they had in 2018.”  

Additionally, Republicans point to Biden’s dismal approval rating in the state, which sits at 33 percent, according to recent polling from Morning Consult.  

Kelly appears keenly aware of the fine line she has to walk as a statewide candidate in a red state. In November, Kelly broke with the Biden administration and signed legislation into law that would make it easier for federal workers in the state to keep their jobs despite federal mask mandates. More recently, in April, Kelly signed GOP-backed legislation into law that bans “sanctuary cities” in the state.  

In a statement to The Hill, Kelly’s campaign touted what they called her moderate approach to governing, as well as her approval rating.  

“Governor Kelly’s job approval rating in addition to her middle-of-the-road approach is just more proof that her steady leadership is resonating with Kansans,” said Lauren Fitzgerald, Kelly’s campaign spokesperson. “After a decade of broken budgets, underfunded schools, a stagnant economy, and stealing from the highway fund, Governor Kelly has delivered for Kansas families.” 

But Republicans are saying “not so fast” to the notion that she’s a middle-of-the-road leader.  

“I don’t believe that her ideology changed,” said Kansas Republican Party Chairman Mike Kuckelman. “I believe that she was looking at an election and realized the only way to win a governor’s race in Kansas is to disassociate from Biden policies.”  

While the race has not garnered much national coverage yet, it is on track to be one of the most closely watched gubernatorial races this cycle. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates it as a “toss-up,” and while polling in the race has been scarce, two surveys conducted last year showed a tight race forming between Kelly and Schmidt. A poll released by the left-leaning Clarity Campaign Labs in September showed Kelly narrowly leading Schmidt 47 percent support to 44 percent, with a 3.4 percentage point margin of error.  

Meanwhile, right-leaning Remington Research showed Schmidt leading Kelly in a September poll 44 percent to 40 percent, with a 3-point margin of error.  

Democrats maintain that Kelly’s high approval ratings are indicative of her strong support in the state. A Morning Consult poll released last week showed Kelly with a 56 percent approval rating, marking a 23-point advantage over Biden. Kelly’s advantage over Biden is the largest of any governor facing reelection this election year, according to Morning Consult.  

Kelly’s supporters are also trying to paint a picture of a bipartisan administration in Wichita by touting a list of roughly 60 Republicans who have endorsed Kelly’s reelection bid, including former state Rep. Jan Kessinger.  

And similar to how Republicans are tying Kelly to Biden, Democrats have employed a strategy of tying Schmidt to Kelly’s predecessor, former Gov. Sam Brownback (R), who was ranked as the country’s least popular governor at one point during his tenure. Schmidt also served under Brownback as attorney general. One Democratic operative referred to Schmidt as a “back to Brownback candidate.” 

“The RGA might want to listen to Republicans in Kansas who continue to approve and endorse Gov. Kelly’s successful record of working with both parties to axe the food tax, fully fund schools and attract record business investments — all while balancing the budget,” said Sam Newton, deputy communications director at the Democratic Governors Association (DGA). “In contrast, the only thing Kansans know about Derek Schmidt is that he’d drag the state back to the budget disasters and devastating cuts to education he defended under Sam Brownback.” 

The Kansas Democratic Party echoed the DGA’s strategy of roping Brownback into the discourse in a statement to The Hill.  

“Kansans haven’t forgotten, and want to keep moving forward and continue making history as one of the best states to do business under Governor Laura Kelly,” said state Democratic Party spokesperson Emma O’Brien. 

While Republicans say they are not betting on Brownback getting back on the campaign trail with Schmidt, they are also dismissing the Democratic strategy of tying Kelly to the last GOP governor of Kansas.

“Brownback hasn’t been governor for five years,” said the Republican familiar with the state’s gubernatorial race. “It would be like tying Kelly to maybe Obama. And I think there’s been efforts to tie her to Biden, but that makes a lot more sense because he’s the current president and he’s in the news all of the time.” 

It remains to be seen how abortion will play out in the race as Kansans prepare to vote next week over whether to remove a right to have the procedure from the state’s constitution. The vote will mark the first on abortion rights since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month.  

Polls show that voters are split over the amendment, with the anti-abortion rights side slightly leading. However, Republicans and Democrats both agree that November’s election will come down to the economy.  

“This race is certainly going to come down to the kitchen table issues,” said one Democratic operative. “Are they economically more secure than they were just four years ago?”