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Republican Derek Schmidt aims his campaign for governor on inflation, schools and Joe Biden

Republican Derek Schmidt speaks to a crowd at a Kansas Chamber of Commerce candidate forum.
Dylan Lysen
/
Kansas News Service
Republican Derek Schmidt focuses on rising prices, parental anger over schools and an unpopular Democratic president in his campaign for Kansas governor.

The Kansas attorney general is making his bid for governor about President Joe Biden and Democratic policies he says have failed to address rising prices and angered parents over schools.

Editor's note: Miss the story on Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly? Read it here.

SHAWNEE, Kansas — When Derek Schmidt looks at Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, he sees Joe Biden. The Republican state attorney general argues to voters that if they’re fed up with inflation, they should elect him as governor and toss Kelly out.

“She has chosen to side with the Biden Democrats,” Schmidt told a crowd at a Republican rally in Shawnee. “She knows she is in lockstep with that leadership in Washington. And she knows that is not in step with a majority of Kansas values.”

Schmidt leans heavily on a playbook Republicans are using across the country: seize on frustrations over the economy and crime and, as much as possible, make these midterm elections about a president with a popularity problem in red states.

He localizes the argument by saying Kelly could have done more by cutting taxes more.

He also zeroes in on parental anger over schools. While Kelly takes credit for the state fully funding public education after a Kansas Supreme Court order, Schmidt argues the Republican-led Legislature should get the credit. He also says that Kelly hurt students by closing schools when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in March 2020.

“Fully funding schools can only work if you don’t lock the kids out after they’re fully funded,” Schmidt said at a state fair debate in Hutchinson.

If he wins, Schmidt would take the governor’s seat back for the Republican party and — paired with a Republican supermajority in the Legislature — the ability to pass legislation quickly. He promises to make many changes within the first 100 days in office. That includes banning transgender girls from girls sports, a bill Republican lawmakers twice passed but Kelly vetoed.

Campaign

Schmidt has never lost an election in 20 years in Kansas politics. For the last 12 years, he’s been the state’s lawyer.

He’s used the attorney general’s office to sue the federal government over Democrats’ immigration policies and is attempting to block Biden’s federal student loan forgiveness. He also joined the Republican-led lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election results.

Earlier in his career, he held a seat in the Kansas Senate and served as the Republican Party’s leader. Schmidt and Kelly served together in the chamber for about six years.

Now he contends Kelly hurts the state with Democratic policies. While attacking her for not cutting more taxes, he also says the state’s food sale tax should already be on the way out.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt stands with other prominent Republicans and voters during a campaign rally in Shawnee.
Dylan Lysen
/
Kansas News Service
Republican Derek Schmidt, center, leans heavily on a playbook Republicans are using across the country: seize on frustrations over the economy and make the midterm elections about Democratic President Joe Biden.

Republican lawmakers passed a cut in 2019 by adding it into a bill with other tax relief plans. But Kelly vetoed it because of budget worries.

Then she and Schmidt both called for phasing out the food sales tax late last year. Republican lawmakers passed the cut in the spring, and Kelly signed it. But the first decrease doesn’t begin until January, and the tax won’t be completely gone until 2025.

“If the governor would have just signed the bill when the legislature put it on her desk in 2019,” Schmidt said at the Shawnee rally, “the food sales tax today would be half what it currently is and on its way to zero in January.”

Schmidt also hammers her on education. He attacks her for a veto regarding transgender athletes and girls sports and for killing a bill that would have given parents more say over classroom lessons.

Along with signing a bill on transgender athletes, Schmidt said he will also quickly increase funding for school safety measures like hardened entryways and security cameras. He’s also pledged to help put more police in schools.

Meanwhile, Schmidt said he’ll maintain his stance on abortion. Despite Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejecting an amendment to the state constitution that would have opened the door for a total ban, he said he is still opposes access to abortion.

Schmidt’s campaign won’t say if he would sign off on new restrictions. But he promises to defend state restrictions currently in place, and suggests Kelly doesn’t want any.

William Service, an Overland Park resident who attended the Shawnee rally, said he likes Schmidt for standing firm on conservative issues.

“I’m a Christian conservative,” Service said, “and pro-life means a lot to me. So I’m going to vote for him.”

Close race

Schmidt has one giant thing going for him in the race — he’s a Republican. However, despite the state’s deep-red electorate, Schmidt’s chances are far away from a layup.

The race between Kelly in Schmidt is neck and neck. A KSN and The Hill poll conducted by Emerson College shows Kelly and Schmidt are virtually tied.

Republican Derek Schmidt speaks to a crowd at the Kansas State Fair during a debate with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.
Dylan Lysen
/
Kansas News Service
The race between Republican Derek Schmidt, right, and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, right, is neck and neck. Polling shows they are virtually tied.

Mary Frances McGowan of the National Journal said some GOP strategists are nervous he could lose a winnable race.

“Schmidt hasn’t necessarily done everything possible to excite his Republican base,” McGowan said. “Maybe not leaning into his position as attorney general to fire people up.”

Schmidt also needs to fend off an opponent on the right — state Sen. Dennis Pyle, a longtime Republican. Pyle left the party to run as an independent candidate. He calls Schmidt a liberal, just like Kelly.

McGowan said Pyle could take some conservative votes away from Schmidt that he’ll need to win the position for Republicans.

“The race to flip this governorship might be a bit harder than they thought,” McGowan said.

Election Day is Nov. 8.

Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to www.ksnewsservice.org.

As a Kansas political reporter, I want to inform our audience about statewide government and elected officials so they can make educated decisions at the ballot box. Sometimes that means I follow developments in the Legislature and explain how lawmakers alter laws and services of the state government. Other times, it means questioning those lawmakers and candidates for office about those changes and what they plan for the future of the state. And most importantly, it includes making sure the voices of everyday Kansans are heard.