Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly Courts Moderates By Backing Some GOP Policies As Re-Election Looms

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly could be hoping her appeals to Republican voters will help her in the upcoming Kansas gubernatorial election.

The Democratic governor announced on Wednesday her plans to provide one-time tax rebates for 1.2 million residents next year as part of the upcoming state budget. Such a move has been opposed by GOP lawmakers, who plan to announce a separate income tax proposal.

However, proposals such as this are currently being balanced out by policies that appease more towards the GOP and their voters. In November, Kelly signed a bill that would grant unemployment benefits to people who were fired from their jobs for not receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. While many Democrats are crying foul, some experts think this strategy of implementing these proposals could work out for her in the upcoming election.

"What Democrats need to remember is that she's doing that to try to win reelection," said Democratic strategist Mike Swenson. "We can appeal to the moderates, absolutely."

Kelly's loose stance on vaccine mandates contrasts with her stances on reproductive rights, another public health debate that has been raging in previous months. She has maintained that keeping herself in the political center is best for the population of her state, not her political party. Experts and strategists are agreeing.

"It's just the reality of being a Democratic governor in Kansas," said political scientist Bob Beatty. "You have to be in the middle and sometimes you have to be in the middle-right."

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Democratic governor of Kansas Laura Kelly announced on Wednesday her plans to provide one-time tax rebates for 1.2 million residents next year as part of the upcoming state budget. Above, Kelly delivers the keynote speech at today's Emporia State University Constitution Day event for high school students at Emporia, Kansas, on September 17, 2019. Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images

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.

"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.

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 percent 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.

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. Senator Jon Tester when he was narrowly reelected in 2018.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Kansas Governor Laura Kelly could be hoping her appeals to Republican voters will help her in the upcoming Kansas gubernatorial election. Above, Kansas Governor Laura Kelly answers questions during an Associated Press interview in her Statehouse office on December 21, 2021, in Topeka, Kansas. AP Photo/John Hanna