Kansas Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt on Oct. 24 received what could have been a useful development in the extremely close contest for governor: national assessment scores measuring math and reading had fallen among Kansas students.
The drop played right into Schmidt’s criticism of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s decision to become the first governor in the country to switch to remote learning for the remainder of the academic year as COVID-19 spread in the spring of 2020.
But Schmidt and his allies that day were focused on drag shows. Schmidt and the Republican Governors Association seized on a report in a British tabloid that Kansas taxpayer dollars had supported a recent open to all ages event in Wichita that included a drag show.
The RGA and Schmidt sent scalding statements and Schmidt held a late afternoon news conference in Wichita to further condemn Kelly — even as the attack quickly fell apart under scrutiny, with the Kansas Department of Commerce saying no tax dollars funded drag shows. Meanwhile, Schmidt’s campaign took nearly five hours to weigh in on the assessment scores.
“It was very much a throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks scenario, I think, in the last month-and-a-half,” said a Republican strategist familiar with the race, who nevertheless defended the late focus on drag shows.
Schmidt’s loss to Kelly this week was a demoralizing blow to Kansas Republicans, who believed they stood a solid chance of denying her a second term even as they acknowledged the race would be close. Kelly’s victory was historic, as she became the first Kansas Democrat since 1978 to win the governor’s race while the party controls the White House, though some Republicans also noted an incumbent governor hasn’t lost a general election since 1990.
The Star spoke with more than 20 current and former elected officials, political operatives in both parties, longtime observers of campaigns and others to explore why Schmidt lost and how Kelly became only the fifth Democratic governor in Kansas history to win reelection. What emerges is a portrait of a Republican campaign pulled by both its right flank and the center and unable to settle on a unifying message — while Democrats relentlessly pursued a vast swath of moderate voters.
The dynamic was compounded by expectations of a red wave that never materialized and state Sen. Dennis Pyle, an independent candidate who ran to Schmidt’s right.
The discipline between the two major party campaigns was stark. Early on, Kelly settled on a “middle of the road” focus that included promoting economic development achievements, fully funding public schools and signing legislation that will eventually eliminate the state sales tax on food — and then stuck to those themes, with rare exceptions.
Schmidt put forward a wider array of messages seemingly intended to appeal to different kinds of voters. He proposed policies with potentially broad appeal, such as eliminating state income taxes on retirement benefits, only to lean into divisive social controversies, such as the fight over banning transgender athletes from girls’ sports and attempting to link Kelly to drag shows.
“She campaigned tirelessly as the middle of the road candidate,” Kelly’s campaign spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald said. “She focused on kitchen table issues, economy, jobs and education. Derek’s team didn’t. They focused on divisive issues and that did not really resonate with a lot of Kansans.”
C.J. Grover, Schmidt’s campaign manager, objected to the suggestion the campaign lacked focus. He said they narrowed in on three issues: education, affordability of daily life, and how Kansas values suffered under Kelly and Biden.
“Every ad, every piece of mail, and every communication focused on those themes. Of course as breaking news happened, we responded strongly – as any good campaign should,” he said in an email on behalf of the campaign.
Kelly’s approach paid off in Johnson County – the state’s most populous – and helped the Democrat score a narrow win in Sedgwick County, home to Wichita, the state’s largest city. Johnson County, traditionally a bastion of moderate voters, has become a Democratic stronghold in recent years amid the chaos of former President Donald Trump’s time in office and the financial crises under former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
Schmidt earned 197 fewer votes there than Republican state Attorney General-elect Kris Kobach, a highly divisive figure in Kansas politics, according to unofficial results that may still change slightly.
“If you’re going to pick strawberries then you have to go where the strawberries are. The Kansas City market needs to be a greater priority for statewide Republican campaigns, starting with early sustained grassroots investment,” said David Kensinger, a Kansas Republican strategist who managed Brownback’s 2010 campaign.
Brownback won Johnson County in both 2010 and 2014, and Trump won it in 2016. But Schmidt lost the county in his 2018 campaign for reelection for state attorney general to a Democrat who was condemned by her own party.
“I think Republicans are going to have to spend some time organizing and working towards re-earning those, frankly, I guess moderate Republican voters who don’t support the national brand,” said former U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Republican who represented Johnson County in Congress from 2011 to 2019.
Schmidt’s campaign didn’t spend any TV dollars in the Kansas City media market. The area is among the most expensive to campaign in and costs were driven up by never-before-seen spending by national groups on both sides of the aisle.
“If he is missing the opportunity to get one more percent in Johnson County, one more percent in Johnson County is more votes than are cast in a lot of Kansas counties,” Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist, said last week.
The Democratic Governors Association alone said it spent $17.5 million on the race. For comparison, the Republican Governors Association spent just over $11 million, according to campaign finance reports. Both bought TV ads in the Kansas City market.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Schmidt and Katie Sawyer, his running mate, visited 90 Kansas towns. Grover said the campaign sent 2.77 million text messages to potential voters.
“It’s tough to defeat someone when you’re outspent by such an enormous sum of money and it’s difficult to combat that kind of weight of messaging on television,” said state Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican and a political strategist who worked on Republican state Attorney General-elect Kris Kobach’s campaign.
State Rep. William Sutton, a Gardner Republican, said the lesson that should be drawn from midterm results is the importance of sticking to your message and building up a base of support, pointing to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ strong reelection victory on Tuesday. He suggested Republican efforts in the Kansas governor’s race were too focused on attacking Kelly.
“It seems to me that candidates who are running with a positive message are going to be received better,” Sutton said.
Rush to blame Pyle
Republicans have been eager to blame the defeat on the insurgent independent candidacy of Pyle. The Hiawatha resident left the Republican Party earlier this year to run a shoestring campaign dedicated to tarring Schmidt and Kelly equally as liberals while presenting himself as the true conservative candidate. He received some support from Democratic-linked groups.
Pyle earned 2% of the vote – 19,963 votes – an almost identical number to the 19,965-vote margin between Schmidt and Kelly, according to unofficial results posted to the Kansas Secretary of State’s website on Friday. The results will continue to fluctuate slightly as mail and provisional ballots are counted.
“The Democrats played Dennis Pyle for a fool and he let them,” Mike Kuckelman, chair of the Kansas Republican Party, said. “Dennis Pyle will be forever responsible for whatever happens under the Kelly administration over the next four years.”
Pyle objected to that narrative, insisting many of his voters would have stayed home before voting for Schmidt. And privately, some Republicans said the focus on Pyle risks ignoring weaknesses in the Schmidt strategy and minimizing the lessons future GOP candidates need to learn.
“Republicans have won before with independents on the ballot. Blaming the loss on that one factor is missing the forest for the trees,” a different Republican political strategist said.
Brownback won reelection in 2014 despite an aggressive campaign by Libertarian Keen Umbehr, who won 35,206 votes — 4% of that year’s total. By comparison, in Tuesday’s election, Pyle and Libertarian Seth Cordell won a combined 3% of the vote — about 30,800 votes.
Grover, speaking for the Schmidt campaign, pointed to Pyle and high spending by Democratic groups as insurmountable barriers for the campaign.
“Ultimately, we weren’t able to overcome national Democrats pouring an immense and unmatched amount of money into Kansas early on to mount a dishonest and cynical effort to focus on someone who hasn’t been on a ballot in almost a decade, and to fund a third-party spoiler who ultimately won the race for Kelly,” Grover said, referring to Brownback and Pyle.
Schmidt’s narrow defeat came even as other statewide Republicans, such as U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, cruised to 20-point or more victories over their Democratic challengers.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Schmidt appeared to be working hard to shore up his right flank and turn out conservative voters. He brought in DeSantis, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, former Vice President Mike Pence and released a video message of support from Trump.
Schmidt also promised late in the campaign that if elected he wouldn’t add COVID-19 vaccines to the list of required immunizations for schoolchildren, even though Kansas health officials hadn’t announced any intention to require them. He spent precious time in one of the last weekends of the race addressing a hard-right rally in Topeka.
Schmidt had plans and messages that had the potential to broadly resonate. In addition to the plan to eliminate income tax on retirement benefits, he also promoted plans to fund additional school security measures and eliminate sales tax on diapers and feminine hygiene products.
However, those plans were often overshadowed by his attacks on Kelly, whom he hammered as a liberal aligned with Democratic President Joe Biden. Schmidt also spent little time promoting his own biography — outside of noting that he had sued the Biden administration, he didn’t talk extensively about his time as attorney general or his tenure as a state senator.
Schmidt’s 10 years in the Kansas Senate formed the foundation of his political career, but he also earned a reputation as a more moderate – by today’s standards – Republican. He also worked for former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum and former Gov. Bill Graves, both moderate Republicans who endorsed Kelly, as well as former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who was Secretary of Defense under former Democratic President Barack Obama.
Bringing up that part of his past could have fueled doubts on the right and charges of flip flopping on the left.
With Schmidt unwilling to talk extensively about his political biography, Kelly and her allies were more than happy to offer their version. For months, TV ads linked Schmidt to Brownback, one of the most unpopular figures in the state over his signature income tax cuts, which led to massive budget shortfalls.
The same Republican strategist familiar with the race that criticized the campaign’s messaging said Schmidt waited too long to combat the Brownback comparison. Schmidt held low name recognition, despite decades in public service, and he let Democrats tell voters what to think of him.
“Derek was running his AG office a certain way for 12 years and missed an opportunity to create a brand or a name for himself,” the person said. “They saw an opening to define Derek Schmidt early on and they took it.”
Fitzgerald said a key portion of the campaign was to capitalize on lingering memories of the Brownback administration and define Schmidt as Brownback’s “right-hand man.” Internal Democratic polling, Fitzgerald said, had Brownback with a 58% unfavorable rating in early November.
“First and foremost Kansans believed the governor did a good job,” she said of Kelly.
Republican Party divided
In the aftermath of Schmidt’s loss, the lesson some hard-right Republicans are taking away is that Schmidt was insufficiently conservative.
State Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican, in a video posted to Facebook said Pyle played a “miniscule” role in Schmidt’s loss. Instead, Steffen faulted a lack of leadership at the top of the state party.
“A guy who couldn’t bring the charisma, he couldn’t bring the energy because he didn’t believe the platform he was promoting to the conservative Republicans. And it didn’t work out well,” Steffen said.
State Rep. Samantha Poetter Parshall, a Paola Republican who worked for Kobach when he was state secretary of state, said the lack of a Republican primary in both the governor’s race and 3rd District congressional contest reduced enthusiasm among conservatives. Schmidt ran from the abortion issue, she argued, which alienated part of the base.
“The extreme pro-life conservatives said, ‘Well, then we’ll either vote for Pyle or the Libertarian or not vote at all in that race,’” Poetter said.
The election outcome may eventually lead to a power struggle within the party. Mike Brown, a former Johnson County commissioner who ran an unsuccessful hard-right primary challenge against Kansas Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab, has previously floated the possibility of running for chair of the Kansas Republican Party. On Wednesday, he teased a “BIG ANNOUNCEMENT very soon” in a Facebook post.
Schmidt’s poor performance in Johnson County has also come under scrutiny from Republicans. Kelly won the county 59% to 39%, improving upon her 2018 victory in the county, when she won 55% of the vote.
Schmidt’s efforts in Johnson County included visits from DeSantis and Youngkin. But Stephanie Sharp, a former Republican lawmaker and consultant who works with moderate candidates, said the efforts to appeal to the right alienated Johnson County moderates and felt fabricated.
“We’re still at our core Eisenhower, Dole, Kassebaum Republicans,” Sharp said. “The rhetoric, the extreme rhetoric that is not what Kansans are and he knows that.”
Yoder, the former congressman, said Republicans will have to spend time in Johnson County to win over more centrist and independent voters.
“And that takes effort. And it’s difficult when the national party brand hangs over that conversation,” Yoder said.
Prior to Election Day, Schmidt said his team had taken a grassroots approach to the county but that everywhere in the state was important.
Democrats invested significant energy into the county, which is also the home base of U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, the state’s sole Democrat in Congress. Davids won a third term by 12 points, her widest margin of victory so far, suggesting she helped turn out voters who then also backed Kelly.
At the same time, Sharp said the negative ads national groups ran against Kelly in Johnson County may have ended up helping her.
“A lot of people, especially in Johnson County, equate Laura Kelly with public school funding,” Sharp said. “Tying her to Biden and Pelosi, I think that that may work in parts of the state, but Johnson County voters are educated enough to think, ‘Yeah, they’re not besties. It seems kind of ridiculous.’”
The Star’s Daniel Desrochers contributed reporting
This story was originally published November 12, 2022 5:30 AM.
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