Republican endorsements of Kansas Democratic governor cast a shadow over her challenger

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Republican nominee for Kansas governor Derek Schmidt, the state's longest-serving attorney general, has troubling ties to the fiscally disastrous governorship of Sam Brownback and faces a popular Democratic incumbent in November.

Almost twice as many Republicans are registered to vote as Democrats in Kansas, and the state has voted reliably for Republican presidential candidates by a wide margin in every election this century.

However, the current governor of the state, Laura Kelly, is a Democrat, and last week Mike Hayden, a Republican who also served as governor, endorsed Kelly over the Republican nominee for the position, Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

"The affairs of Kansas," Hayden said in a video shared by Kelly's Twitter account, "are in good shape right now, and I credit the bipartisan approach of Gov. Kelly."

Hayden, who calls himself "a lifelong Republican," cited some of her achievements: "Highways are being repaired, school funding's at a record level, jobs are being created, and the sales tax is finally being removed from groceries. That's why on Nov. 8, Gov. Kelly's got my vote."

Hayden's endorsement crowns a long list of Republicans in the state who have lined up behind the Democratic governor, abandoning their party's nominee.

Kansas is the only state won by Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election in which a Democratic governor is running for reelection this year.

Schmidt, who has served as attorney general since 2011, beginning under former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, has so far run a campaign characterized by scant press coverage, but this week it released an attack ad with the title "Empower Parents," in which a Kansas mother says, "The school lockdowns were hard on my children and every Kansas student. When Laura Kelly calls herself the 'education governor,' it makes me angry."

Prominent educators and politicians offered rebuttals to the ad, highlighting Kelly's achievements in education, including the full funding of public schools for four years, as well as Schmidt's track record of failure under previous administrations.

In response to ongoing attacks against her for her actions to close schools during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there was no access to tests or vaccines against the coronavirus, Kelly is standing by her decisions. She told the audience at a campaign appearance in early September: "We in Kansas had to take a look at what do we know, what do we have, and what we need to do to make sure we keep our people safe. So, when I look at what we did, I know everybody thinks about the sort of dramatic decision to close our schools and to be the first governor to close them for the entire year. I'll make no apologies for that."

Sherri Schwanz, a teacher who serves as president of the Kansas National Education Association, told the Kansas Reflector: "Governor Laura Kelly is the education governor. For her opponent to attempt to lay claim to that title is laughable. A more accurate title for Derek Schmidt to claim would be Brownback's defender in chief."

As Washburn University political science professor Bob Beatty told the Topeka Capital-Journal, it may be smart strategy for Schmidt to target this issue, but "There's some real baggage there from the Brownback years in terms of education that I think will make it difficult for him to win the issue."

Schmidt supported Brownback's tax and education policies, which involved deep tax cuts and resulted in catastrophic and unconstitutional underfunding of Kansas public schools.

A Brookings Institution report published in 2017 detailed how Brownback's radical tax agenda served as a lesson for what happens when state budgets are gutted: "The Brownback plan aimed to boost the Kansas economy, but instead led to sluggish growth, lower than expected revenues, and brutal cuts to government programs. The Brownback tax cuts, one of the cleanest experiments for measuring the effects of tax cuts on economic growth in the U.S., were eventually reversed by a Republican-controlled legislature as a failure."

Schmidt, who is endorsed by former President Donald Trump, was one of a number of state attorneys general who filed suit in December 2020 to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. He has also been criticized for allowing two staff members to attend a summit of attorney general staffers, referred to as "war games," ahead of that election to brainstorm responses in the event that Trump was not declared the victor. The Rule of Law Defense Fund, the fundraising arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association, organized the event and later allegedly helped organize the "March to Save America," the protest that immediately preceded the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021.

The Reflector pointed out that Schmidt has had to walk a "political tightrope" between supporting Trump's claims of election fraud while at the same time asserting that he believes the Kansas election system to be "solid."

Abortion is another issue on which Schmidt must navigate between opposing viewpoints. Kansans recently voted overwhelmingly against a constitutional amendment that would have stripped the state's residents of their right to have an abortion; meanwhile, Schmidt's campaign website shows that he is endorsed by Right to Life Kansas and by Susan B. Anthony America, whose mission is to "end abortion by electing national leaders and advocating for laws that save lives, with a special calling to promote pro-life women leaders."

Schmidt supported the initiative for a constitutional amendment, and in July issued a legal opinion suggesting that it would not affect the treatment of miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies. Following the failure of the ballot measure, Schmidt said, "I think Kansans, Kansas voters, went to the polls. They made a decision, I think that decision has to be respected going forward."

Earlier this month Kelly was endorsed by another former Republican Kansas governor, Bill Graves, who said, "I think the governor has done a great job. Having been there and done that, I kind of know what to look for in the character and the performance of a governor and I just think Laura Kelly deserves to be reelected."

The Cook Political Report rates the Kansas governor's race a toss-up.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.