Governor candidates Schmidt, Kelly clash on Kansas State Fair stage in campaign’s first debate


Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Republican gubernatorial nominee Derek Schmidt, the state’s attorney general, dive into a debate at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson. (Jill Hummels for the Kansas Reflector)


HUTCHINSON — Gov. Laura Kelly and Attorney General Derek Schmidt celebrated with rambunctious partisans at the campaign’s first debate Saturday while pointing to their own political accomplishments and heaping criticism on their main rivals in the November election for governor.


Their performances on the Kansas State Fair’s outdoor stage, within walking distance of the butter sculpture exhibit in the Pride of Kansas Building, offered voters opportunity to discern whether the incumbent Democratic governor or the aspiring Republican challenger withered in a punchy one-on-one encounter.


Kelly, a four-term state senator from Topeka, was elected to the top office in 2018. The state’s 48th governor said she warranted a second term after working with the GOP-led Legislature to balance the state budget and build a $1 billion rainy-day fund, to fully fund public education after years of litigation, and to sign into law a plan to eliminate the state’s 6.5 percent sales tax on groceries.


Kelly heralded the state’s record-low unemployment. She touted her economic development credentials, including a claim of establishing or retaining 48,000 jobs. The governor reminded listeners she helped land the largest economic development project in Kansas history: A $4 billion Panasonic battery plant. She said Kansas broke ground on more than 1,000 infrastructure projects since she took office as governor in 2019.


She repeatedly reminded the audience Schmidt endorsed budget and tax policies put forward by former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback that resulted in years of financial problems.

“Do you really think we were better off under Brownback?” Kelly demanded. “Derek Schmidt supported the agenda that rode us into the ditch.”


Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the Republican nominee for governor of Kansas, denounced Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s decision early in the COVID-19 pandemic to close school buildings. (Jill Hummels for Kansas Reflector)


Schmidt, who served in the Senate with Kelly before being elected three times as the state’s attorney general, said he offered voters a conservative champion who would be devoted to personal responsibility, individual freedom and the Constitution. Schmidt cruised to the GOP nomination after dodging a Republican primary. Former Gov. Jeff Colyer withdrew due to health issues.


Schmidt was critical of Kelly’s administrative orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially actions that closed school buildings and certain businesses early in the global plague. He ripped Kelly’s endorsement of state government spending made possible by surging federal aid lauded by Democratic President Joe Biden.


“We must not adopt government policies that try to turn Kansas into California,” Schmidt said. “Governor Kelly is wrong in her philosophy. So many Kansans tell me they are anxious about our freedoms, our future and our commonsense values we thought we all shared. Many worry creeping big-government socialism is replacing the opportunity and self-sufficiency that motivated and empowered so many Kansas stories in years past.”


The excitement began before the 90-minute debate, with the Schmidt campaign’s failed attempt to oust Kansas Farmer editor Jennifer Latzke, who was among media members selected to ask questions to candidates. Alpha Media, the parent company of WIBW Radio, which broadcast the debate, said the station hadn’t ejected a panelist in more than 40 years and wouldn’t “start that practice in this election year.”


Kelly and Schmidt sliced through the crowd’s rowdy cheers, boos and chants in search of traction in what could be a race influenced by state Sen. Dennis Pyle, an independent who has blasted the major party nominees in equal measure, and Libertarian Party nominee Seth Cordell. Neither were invited to participate in this debate.

Supporters of Gov. Laura Kelly and Attorney General Derek Schmidt, candidates for governor in Kansas, let their views be known Saturday at the Kansas State Fair with signs, jeers and cowbells. (Jill Hummels for Kansas Reflector)


Schmidt and Kelly celebrated their difference of opinion on abortion rights. The issue has taken on supercharged political importance with rejection in August of a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would have declared women didn’t have a state constitutional right to abortion. It was defeated by 165,000 votes, or a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent.


“I’m pro-life,” Schmidt said. “I supported the constitutional amendment. Kansas voters have decided, which does not mean the discussion has ended.”


Kelly said she stood with a majority of Kansans convinced women had a right to privacy in their own medical decisions without the government overreach embedded in the failed amendment.


She said the Kansas Supreme Court correctly interpreted the state’s Bill of Rights to include a right to bodily autonomy and abortion. In terms of the six Supreme Court justices on the November ballot, Kelly said she would vote to retain each of them. Schmidt said he would vote to keep some and remove others but declined to be specific.


Schmidt and Kelly engaged in back and forth about state funding of K-12 public education, which has been the source of decades of turbulent litigation and statehouse feuding. The panel of journalists invited the candidates into the issue by asking about the state and federal governments’ inability to fully finance special education.


Kelly returned to her Brownback-Schmidt assault, while Schmidt reminded the audience of Kelly’s decision to be the first state governor to move students to an online instructional format at onset of the pandemic.


“Derek Schmidt stood by Brownback tax cuts to our schools,” Kelly said. “He even went to court to keep those cuts in place.”


Schmidt’s reply: “Fully funding schools can only work if you don’t lock the kids out of them.”


The Democratic and Republican candidates agreed mental health services should be a prominent feature of public school offerings so troubled students could be identified and receive appropriate treatment. Schmidt said the state also should invest more funding in hiring of armed security in school buildings, which he referred to as the “best guarantee” available in terms of thwarting potential shooters.


“What we should not do is turn this into an excuse to take guns away from law-abiding American citizens,” he said.


Kelly said she wasn’t in favor of the government seizing firearms from people in the name of protecting students and teachers in school buildings.


“What I’m talking about is background checks,” the governor said. “Ensuring that guns are locked up and kept away from children in the home. I think every commonsense gun owner would agree with me.”


This article was used by permission from the Kansas Reflector. The Kansas Reflector is a non-profit online news organization serving Kansas. For more information on the organization, go to its website at www.kansasreflector.com.

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