Trump Voters Could Be Key to Kansas Democrat Keeping Her Job

  • Only Democratic governor running in state that Trump carried
  • Both Trump and Dole endorsed the probable GOP nominee

Laura Kelly is in a unique position.

The Kansas governor is the only incumbent Democrat running for re-election in a state that voted for Donald Trump in 2020.

She has to figure out how to retain her base—she won with 48% of the vote in 2018—while also appealing to admirers of the former president, who carried 56% of the state’s vote in 2020.

A big difference this time: She’s running on her own record as the executive who is leading Kansas through the Covid-19 pandemic rather than focusing on her work as a state senator to undo the starve-the-government tax policies of former Gov. Sam Brownback (R).

As “a reasonably popular Democratic governor running for re-election in a Republican state in a Joe Biden midterm,” Kelly has a big challenge, Patrick Miller, University of Kansas political science professor, said in an interview.

“She has to keep together her coalition, which is Democrats, independents, and about 20% Republicans—usually more moderate Republicans,” he said. It’s “going to create a difficult dynamic for her.”

At the Republican Governors Association, “We consider Laura Kelly the most vulnerable incumbent in the country from either party right now,” spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez said.

Photographer: Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) shown at a 2019 speech in Emporia, Kan.

“This is going to be a really tough, competitive race,” said Democratic Governors Association spokesman Sam Newton.

Kelly’s approval rating in December was pegged at 54% by the survey organization Morning Consult.

Trump’s already in the mix.

In her Jan. 11 State of the State speech, Kelly touted her coordination with the Trump administration. And presumptive Republican nominee Derek Schmidt says in his early campaign ads that he’s “defending President Trump’s America First agenda, with its pro-growth and pro-jobs policies.”

Schmidt, the state’s attorney general, also could benefit from the endorsement of former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, the biggest name in Kansas politics until his death Dec. 5.

In early head-to-head polling, a September survey by the Republican firm Remington Research Group had Kelly trailing Schmidt, 44% to 40%.

Kelly was tracking ahead, 47% to 44%, in another September poll performed for the abortion-rights political group Emily’s List. The race is rated a toss-up by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report with Amy Walter and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

“Anyone who thinks she can easily get re-elected is out of touch with the situation,” Miller said.

Pandemic Performance

Throughout the pandemic, Kelly has been appearing regularly on television with state health officials with the latest statistics and to encourage voluntary vaccination.

Her administration gave up to $100 to Kansans to get vaccinated though an alliance including the governor’s office, Dollar General Corp., and Dillon Health, a subsidiary of The Kroger Co.

Kelly ordered masks to be worn in state buildings and temporarily canceled in-person public school classes. She limited the number of people eligible to gather at places of worship, an executive order challenged in federal court.

However, she opposed the Biden administration’s requirement that workers either at companies with 100 or more employees or at health-care facilities participating in Medicaid or Medicare be fully vaccinated or tested weekly.

Kelly’s staff, which declined a request for an interview, emphasized economic results including higher-than-expected December tax collections, which were about 15% higher, or $120 million more than in December 2020, according to the Kansas Department of Revenue.

When Covid-19 threw 139,517 Kansans out of work early in 2020, the aging computer system Kelly’s administration inherited couldn’t keep up with surging unemployment claims.

Many payments were delayed.

Others turned out to be fraudulent; the state errantly approved more than $275 million in illegal claims. And some Kansans’ bank accounts were overdrawn when the state pulled back some duplicate payments.

“I think there will be much discussion about dissatisfaction across the state with the governor’s leadership during the pandemic,” state GOP chairman Mike Kuckelman said in an interview. “It will be very difficult for Gov. Kelly to pick off Trump voters.”

Bipartisan Pitch

In her State of the State speech, Kelly stressed how her administration drove economic growth during a tough time, and doubled down on a message of bipartisanship.

She said she’s signed 187 bills into law that had bipartisan support—a necessity with a Republican-dominated legislature.

She complimented Republicans by name, including Dole and former Sen. Pat Roberts, and described working with the Trump administration to keep Kansas meat-packing facilities open early in the pandemic.

A big election-year proposal: a one-time tax rebate of $250 for every individual, or $500 for a couple filing jointly, and repeal of the 6.5% tax on groceries. She said she’ll also try again to convince lawmakers to expand Medicaid to cover more of the state’s poor.

Fluke?

Kelly could find some political comfort in the state’s history of choosing different types of politicians for governor and the White House.

Since 1945 Kansas has voted for just one Democrat for president, Lyndon Johnson, while choosing five Democratic governors, former Gov. John Carlin (D) pointed out in an interview. Carlin was re-elected two years after Ronald Reagan won his first presidential term, and Kathleen Sebelius (D) was elected twice during the eight-year George W. Bush administration.

During her 14-year legislative career, Kelly represented a swing district, relying on centrist appeal to stay in office.

Rodriguez said the view of the Republican Governors Association is that “the 2018 gubernatorial election was a fluke,” and the U.S. Senate election won by Roger Marshall (R) with 53% of the vote was a truer reflection of the state’s partisan sentiment.

“What we saw in the Senate race is that Kansas is still a red state and voters vote with Republican values in mind and don’t feel comfortable with a moderate Democratic candidate,” she said.

Democrats like state Sen. Cindy Holscher see value in reminding voters of what they don’t miss about Kansas under the Brownback administration.

“Essentially when Laura Kelly came into the job this state was in shambles. I mean every department was on fire,” Holscher said in an interview.

Kelly “understands what it takes in politics,” the lawmaker said. “She is soft spoken, but she is a tough cookie, too.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Joyce in Chicago at sjoyce@bloomberglaw.com

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