TOPEKA, Kan. – Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly spent 18 months sparring with Kansas’ legislative Republicans over COVID-19 measures. In the early days of the pandemic she imposed and then extended a stay-at-home order, issued a brief statewide mask mandate and tried to limit in-person worship services – all while meeting growls of GOP protest.
Then in November, two days after Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe to become governor of reliably blue Virginia, Kelly expressed her first opposition to Democratic President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates. A couple weeks later, she signed a bill aimed at helping Kansas workers resist vaccine mandates, a proposal that even the GOP-friendly Kansas Chamber of Commerce opposed.
As Democrats shook their heads, Kelly’s moves signaled her efforts to appeal to moderate Republican and GOP-leaning independent voters who she will need to win a tough reelection race in a heavily Republican state next year.
Like Democratic governors in Michigan and Wisconsin, Kelly will try to win a second term against midterm political headwinds blowing in Republicans’ favor. But she’s trying it in a state former President Donald Trump carried twice and where Republicans, energized in opposition to Biden’s vaccine mandates, look likely to avoid a serious primary fight.
Her attempt to stake out ground in the political center has irritated some fellow Democrats in the short term. But others argue the tactic could work for her if she also hammers home a message that Kansas now has a stable budget and its public schools are considered fully funded.
"What Democrats need to remember is that she’s doing that to try to win reelection," said Mike Swenson, who has worked as a Democratic strategist and consultant in the Kansas City area for over four decades.
He added: “We can appeal to the moderates — absolutely.”
Kelly said throughout the pandemic that she would follow science in addressing it. But Republican lawmakers used their legislative supermajorities to force her to accept more local control over decisions about requiring masks and restricting businesses — a move that allowed many communities to reject recommendations from public health officials. She weathered their criticism for making prison inmates an early priority for vaccines.
And so she surprised some Democrats and liberal activists by publicly questioning Biden's vaccine mandates and quickly signing Republicans' bill. The new law provides unemployment benefits if workers lose jobs for refusing shots and allows them to claim religious exemptions, no questions asked.
Also, to some Democrats, she seemed closer to Republican leaders: Multiple Democratic lawmakers said they learned of her plans to sign the bill from GOP colleagues' gloating texts.
“It’s a huge, huge gamble,” said Christopher Reeves, a Kansas City-area consultant and former Democratic National Committee member.
She signed the measure less than a week after the state health department's head abruptly resigned. Dr. Lee Norman was visible early in the coronavirus pandemic, appearing with Kelly at news conferences, often wearing a white lab coat. Internal emails showed an internal conflict this past summer over pandemic messaging, and Norman also recently said Kelly's administration ousted him because of COVID-19 politics.
Kelly positioning herself in the political center on vaccines contrasts with her strong support for abortion access and LGBTQ rights.
Kelly said during a recent Associated Press interview that her decision-making isn't driven by “what voters it’s going to keep in my camp.” She cited major bipartisan legislation on school funding and transportation funding as examples of her approach.
“It’s the only way to govern and govern well,” she said.
Even as Kelly and GOP lawmakers sparred early in the pandemic, she praised Trump's response to outbreaks in meatpacking plants enough that he later said she was doing a “fantastic job” in handling the pandemic.
Environmental issues provide another example of appealing to Republican-minded voters. Her administration resisted Biden administration efforts to preserve the lesser prairie chicken’s habitat, which raises concerns that agriculture and energy production will be restricted. Kelly’s administration has also been skeptical of Biden’s push to preserve 30% of the nation’s land by 2030, which critics call a land grab.
In addition, after forming a racial justice commission after the Minnesota killing of George Floyd last year, she didn't intervene this year when its proposals stalled in the Legislature.
And on Wednesday, Kelly proposed giving a one-time $250 rebate to every Kansas resident who filed a state income tax return last year, with $500 going to married couples who file jointly. The move came after Kelly vetoed three GOP proposals for permanent income tax cuts in three years, calling those measures fiscally irresponsible.
“It’s just the reality of being a Democratic governor in Kansas,” said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University of Topeka political scientist. “You have to be in the middle and sometimes you have to be in the middle-right.”
While Democrats haven't won a U.S. Senate race in Kansas in nearly 90 years, they've been successful in trading the governor's office back and forth with Republicans over the past half-century.
Swenson said the formula is “simple”: Run up votes in the state's 10 most populous counties and avoid losing the other 95 by too much. Kelly essentially followed that path to victory in 2018.
It also helped Kelly in 2018 that her GOP foe was polarizing conservative Trump ally Kris Kobach, whose take-no-prisoners style alienated moderate voters. Kelly's expected Republican opponent next year is Derek Schmidt, the state's three-term attorney general.
Schmidt is running as an anti-abortion, small-government attorney general, but in the mold of Kansas Republicans like former U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and the late Bob Dole — pragmatic enough to avoid alienating moderates.
Kelly prepared for 2022 by hiring a reelection campaign manager who in 2020 led Democrats' successful effort to flip a Republican congressional seat in Georgia. Shelbi Dantic was also the deputy campaign manager in Montana for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester when he was narrowly reelected in 2018.
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