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Laura Kelly will face Derek Schmidt in Kansas governor race, with Dennis Pyle as a wild card

 Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, will face Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt in the general election.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen and Charlie Riedel
Kansas News Service and Associated Press
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, will face Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt in the general election.

Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, is seeking a second term in a campaign requiring she display bipartisan appeal. Derek Schmidt, who spent the past dozen years as the state's attorney general, secured the GOP nomination.

Democrat Laura Kelly and Republican Derek Schmidt emerged victorious from Tuesday’s primary brandishing the organizational framework and burnished messaging of gubernatorial campaigns ready for a three-month sprint to November.

Schmidt, who spent the past dozen years as attorney general of red-state Kansas, secured the GOP nomination and the opportunity to take on Kelly. No incumbent Kansas governor, who won the job in a statewide vote, has lost reelection in more than 25 years. Kelly, who defeated Republican firebrand Kris Kobach in 2018, is seeking a second term in a campaign requiring she display bipartisan appeal.

The unexpected twist is the presence of independent governor candidate Dennis Pyle, a state senator capable of peeling die-hard conservative votes from Schmidt. Another player: Libertarian Party nominee Seth Cordell.

On election night, the major party candidates for Kansas governor offered a glimpse of what kind of narrative they intend to offer voters this fall.

Kelly said Kansans put her in the governor’s office to bring stable financial management to state government after eight years of turmoil under Republican Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer. She delivered on that voter mandate, she said, and went on to fully fund K-12 education, stop bleeding of the state highway program, cut the grocery sales tax, help the state pension system and bolster the state’s savings accounts.

She said unemployment in Kansas was a record low and the private sector invested $13.5 billion in the economy to add 48,000 new jobs during her administration.

“Our state’s fiscal house is back in order,” Kelly said. “But at the same time, the same politicians who drove our state into the ground want the keys back. They must think Kansans have a very short memory.”

The governor warned Republicans would have the state return to days of budget deficits and schools so poorly funded they resorted to four-day weeks. She said the GOP wanted a replay of the Brownback era when “extreme political ideologies won over basic common sense” and the state was getting national attention “for all the wrong reasons.”

“We’ve tried that approach before and it was a total mess. We cannot go back,” Kelly said. “With stronger schools, an economy that keeps growing — not just with jobs but with careers you can build a life around — and safe communities where neighbors help neighbors. I want to make Kansas the best state in America to get an education, raise a family and start a business.”

Governor Laura Kelly at a grocery store in Olathe.
Jim McLean
Kansas News Service
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly signs the food sales tax cut into law in May.

Schmidt: ‘Come together’

After the polls closed, Schmidt addressed a gathering of Republicans in Johnson County to express gratitude for the privilege of carrying the party’s nomination for governor.

“Kansas needs a new governor,” Schmidt said. “One who didn’t hurt our kids by rushing to lock them out of school, who won’t trail far behind the nation in recovering jobs her lockdowns destroyed and who never again will lose $700 million to unemployment fraud while utterly failing to help thousands of out-of-work Kansans in their time of greatest need.”

In addition to a campaign defined by criticism of Kelly’s performance on the economy and during the COVID-19 pandemic, Schmidt said he would be a governor who championed religious liberty, defended freedoms, kept people safe from crime and deadly drugs, opposed abortion, improved election integrity and reduced reliance on welfare.

He’s worked as attorney general to challenge policies implemented by Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden. With Biden, he’s focused on mandates related to immigration and COVID-19.

“I have stood up for you time and again against the illegal big government overreach of the Obama and Biden administrations,” Schmidt said. “I have stood before the Supreme Court of the United States on your behalf, and won. I have sat with brokenhearted Kansas families, comforted abused children and ached inside at the cruel mistreatment of the elderly and the innocent.”

He appealed to moderate and conservative Republicans, battered during the campaign on abortion rights, to come together ahead of the general election.

“It is time for Republicans to come together behind our nominees and reject the big government liberalism that binds Joe Biden to Laura Kelly. Biden’s bailouts are what’s propping up Kelly’s unsustainable reelection spending spree,” Schmidt said.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt takes the oath of office on the steps of the Kansas Capitol on Jan. 14, 2019.
Nomin Ujiyediin
KCUR 89.3
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt takes the oath of office on the steps of the Kansas Capitol on Jan. 14, 2019.

Competitive primaries

Kansas voters of all stripes and loyalties participated in the statewide vote on a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would declare the document couldn’t be interpreted to include a woman’s right to abortion.

In addition, Kansans determined the nominees for all 125 Kansas House races and the lone Kansas Senate race required due to a lawmaker’s death.

Republican voters stared down a ballot with GOP three choices for attorney general, two options for secretary of state and a pair of challengers for state treasurer. The most prominent of those contests was to select a nominee for attorney general to replace Schmidt.

The race featured state Sen. Kellie Warren, a Johnson County attorney without much courtroom experience. She received political endorsements that included the Kansas Chamber, Kansans for Life and Kansas Livestock Association. Joining that list were former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas.

Her chief rival was Kobach, the two-term secretary of state who sought to align himself with former President Donald Trump. The former president remained popular in Kansas after easily carrying Kansas in 2016 and 2020. But Kobach has suffered a loss of prestige after dropping the 2020 Senate primary race to Marshall and falling short in 2018 against Kelly in the governor’s race.

The other GOP candidate for attorney general was Tony Mattivi, a former federal prosecutor who previously worked in the attorney general’s office. Winner of the Republican primary will challenge Democrat Chris Mann, a Lawrence attorney who had his career as a law enforcement officer ended when hit by a drunk driver while on duty.

Chris Mann, the democratic candidate for attorney general, said he was ready for a hard fought general election campaign at Douglas County Democrats Watch Party in Lawrence. Mann, a former police officer and prosecutor, said there are few races with candidates in such stark contrast as the state’s race for its chief law enforcement position.

Mann said he would put policy over political games, something he said recent attorney generals struggled to do. He would focus on filling vacant positions to better hold violent offenders accountable, while also redouble efforts to investigate consumer and Medicaid fraud.

“We can’t let a career politician with an ideological political agenda set foot inside the state’s top law enforcement position,” Mann said. “As a former police officer and prosecutor, my focus will be on the people of Kansas and their safety.”

Congressional options

Elsewhere, Republicans were given the option of sticking with Secretary of State Scott Schwab or going with challenger Mike Brown, who argued Trump was cheated out of the presidency and Schwab was soft on election security.

The GOP contest for state treasurer was between state Sen. Caryn Tyson and state Rep. Steven Johnson. The final stage of this showdown involved a dispute about their work and votes on tax reform bills while serving in the Legislature.

On Democratic Party ballots, voters had to choose from among six candidates for U.S. Senate. The most prominent was Mark Holland, who served as mayor of the unified government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. Of course, incumbent U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, was awarded the GOP nomination for reelection.

The primary affirmed the general election candidacies of the state’s four members of the U.S. House. That list includes Republican U.S. Reps. Tracey Mann, 1st District; Jake LaTurner, 2nd District; and Ron Estes, 4th District, as well as Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids.

Davids, who ran without opposition in this primary, will face Republican and former Brownback campaign manager Amanda Adkins, who lost to Davids two years ago.

“From a six-way primary four years ago, to running unopposed today, I’m honored to be the Democratic nominee for Congress in the 3rd District,” Davids said. “Even as we face growing division, this campaign has remained focused on listening to and delivering for Kansans. That has let to a record I’m proud of. Working across party lines to lower costs on everyday expenses, repair our aging infrastructure and make more here in America — not China.”

This story was originally published on the Kansas Reflector.

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.
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