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Political Note #358   Laura Kelly Kansas Governor

2022                             General Election

Sixteen states with Democratic governors have an election in 2022.  The Cook Report considers seven of them as less than Solidly Democratic.  Laura Kelly of Kansas is one of those.

For Kansas Republicans, their loss of the gubernatorial election in 2018 was like the death of a sick relative – not a surprise, but a shock nevertheless.  Kansas was the site of a failed experiment.  Former US Senator Sam Brownback, elected Governor of Kansas in 2010, was the mad scientist.  He believed that enormous cuts in taxes would create wealth.  He wasn’t shilling for big business, though the Koch brothers were very big supporters; he believed he would transform Kansas.

Under Brownback’s leadership, taxes on income, other than wages, were eliminated.  Individual taxes were cut.  Sales taxes were reduced.  Taxes on small businesses were eliminated.

Kansas’s experiment demonstrated that drastically cutting taxes does not create wealth.  Sam Brownback became the least popular governor in the country.  In very Republican Kansas, he was elected with 63% of the vote in 2010; reelected with 49% of the vote in 2014.  In 2017, he “got out of Dodge” to become Donald Trump’s Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom.

By 2018, Laura Kelly had been a member of the Kansas State Senate for fourteen years.  She was born in New York City, but is no New Yorker.  She came from a military family.  Like many children of military families, she lived in various places growing up.  Of those places, the Midwest made sense to her.

Laura Kelly has a BA from Bradley University in Indiana and a Master’s in Park Administration from Indiana University.  She worked as a recreation therapist and became the Director of Recreation Therapy and Physical Education at National Jewish Hospital in Denver – a hospital that describes itself as the leading respiratory hospital in the country.

Laura Kelly and her husband, a physician with a specialty in sleep disorders, settled in Topeka. They raised two daughters there.  Laura Kelly made herself a career as Executive Director of the Kansas Recreation and Parks Association, lobbying the legislature on behalf of parks.  Many of her friends and her husband’s friends were in their Topeka neighborhood.  Among them was a well-known Democrat, Kathleen Sibelius.  Sibelius is the daughter of an Ohio Governor, a former governor of Kansas, and Secretary of Health and Human Services under Obama.

Encouraged by friends like Kathleen Sibelius, Laura Kelly ran for and was elected to the State Senate in 2004 when Sam Brownback was one of Kansas’s US Senators.  By the time Brownback became governor, Laura Kelly had become the ranking member of the State Senate Ways and Means Committee. Dealing with the Republican Senate and with Sam Brownback was a challenge.

Laura Kelly’s particular concern was the adverse impact of Brownback’s budgets on children. Some describe her efforts as guerilla warfare. Her war against the Governor reached a high point at a statehouse meeting with a task force on the child welfare system.  Where, she asked, were three missing sisters?  The Agency head had no idea.  In fact, the Agency had no idea they were missing. Foster care contractors followed with additional questions.   Where, they asked, are the 70 plus children who have gone missing over the past few years?  The Agency had failed to pay attention to the children in its care.

Kansas’s moderate Republicans were already in revolt when Laura Kelly decided to run for Governor.  Many had endorsed the Democratic candidate for governor in 2014.  In 2018, Kansas Republicans nominated their Secretary of State Kris Kobach further alienating moderate Republicans.  Kobach accepted the Brownback financial policies, modified by the legislature with a hope they could avoid disaster.  Kobach’s goal was to attack immigration and immigrants – for Kansas and the nation.

Kansas’s moderate Republicans were ready for moderate Democrat Laura Kelly.  Bill Graves, a former Republican Governor, endorsed her, saying he had never before endorsed a Democrat.  Nancy Kassebaum, a former Republican Senator from Kansas and the daughter of Republican Presidential nominee Alf Landon endorsed Laura Kelly. Sheila Frahm, briefly a Republican Senator from Kansas in the 1990s, endorsed Laura Kelly.  A former Republican Lt. Governor, two former Republican Senate Presidents, two former Republican Senate Majority leaders, and a slew of other Republicans endorsed Laura Kelly.

Laura Kelly won the election – 48% to 43%.  Was this a moderate Republican counter revolution?  It’s complicated.  After all, Donald Trump carried Kansas 56% to Hillary Clinton’s 35%, with Libertarians and others gaining the rest.  If this is a moderate Republican counter revolution, it is a slow one.

Laura Kelly was known as a Democrat who worked well with Republicans and Democrats – a necessity for a Democratic Governor who had legislatures with overwhelming Republican majorities.  As a lobbyist for parks and recreation, she had to work effectively with Republicans. She encouraged parks to partner with local communities as part of what she called her Rural Prosperity Plan.  As a legislator, her advocacy for children gained support from Republicans and Democrats.  As Governor, she had promised to provide stability in place of Sam Brownback’s chaos and similar distress promised by Kris Kobach.

As Governor (and in almost anything else in life) you only get one chance to make a good first impression. Laura Kelly had a good first 100 days.  She reorganized state agencies.  She focused on the child welfare system and fired the Highway Patrol’s leadership, which had been subject to claims of misconduct.  Things got tougher when she needed legislative approval.  She got support for a school funding approach that she and the Republican legislature hoped would put an end to lawsuits on the topic. Her nomination for Commerce Secretary was controversial, partly because he had been her campaign manager, but it went through.

There were some failures.  A Supreme Court nominee was rejected.  Medicaid expansion foundered on a dispute about abortion. While cooperating with Republicans when she could and opposing them when she could not, she also held town halls so she could speak directly to the people of Kansas.  No one would have expected it to be easy, but Laura Kelly really did have a good first 100 days.

More recently, the most important issue facing Laura Kelly and every other governor went less smoothly. Dealing with Covid-19 became a partisan issue in Kansas.  Laura Kelly declared a state of emergency on March 12, 2020.  There had been a few cases and one death.  She called for people returning from international travel, cruise ships, California, Washington State, New York and parts of Colorado to isolate for 14 days. She ordered schools closed and a transition to online learning. Gatherings of 50 or more people were prohibited.  She also ordered the temporary closing of bars, restaurants, and theaters.  By the end of March, she ordered people to stay home except for certain essential purposes.  Some counties developed stricter requirements than the statewide rules.

By April 15, Republicans called for an end of economic restrictions, which had been extended to May 3.  On April 24 Laura Kelly announced there were no plans to extend stay at home orders after May 3.  What’s more, after that date large gathering requirements would be less restrictive.  She was responding to the supermajority Republican legislature and law suits from two churches.

Laura Kelly fulfilled the post-May 3 commitments.  She explicitly allowed counties to create greater restrictions than state-wide restrictions.  By May 26, she announced the end of all mandated restrictions.  The mandates were replaced by advisories.  Counties, however, could set mandates. She emphasized that the shift did not obviate the danger from Covid-19.

Laura Kelly’s approach seemed to fit conservative Kansas. But controversies continued.   On June 29, as the importance of face masks became increasingly clear, Laura Kelly ordered that face masks be worn throughout the state in public spaces where social distancing was not possible. Some counties had already issued such an order.  Under the new rule, counties were allowed to lift the face mask requirement only upon consultation with local health officials who declared that mask wearing was not medically necessary.

Laura Kelly’s face mask order was greeted by some as an authoritarian act, as Nazi-like. The restrictions seemed to work, though.  In August, a University of Kansas study found that cases declined in counties that kept the mask mandate.  In October, the same researchers found that case rates remained stable in counties with the mask mandate, but increased in counties that dropped the mask requirement.  A November CDC study was consistent with the October study.  In December USA Today reported that Gove County, one of the counties without a mask requirement, had the highest Covid-19 death rate in the country.  Finally, speaking about “getting out of Dodge,” Joyce Warshaw, Mayor of Dodge City, resigned after receiving death threats because she supported the mask mandate.

Laura Kelly will have an obstacle to overcome if she is to be reelected.  Presidential mid-term years are usually tough for members of the President’s party.  Laura Kelly needs Joe Biden to enter the 2022 elections with more support around the country than a President usually has in the middle of his term.  If Joe Biden is still popular, Laura Kelly will be better able to take full advantage of being the incumbent.

Laura Kelly will face another obstacle – the Republican candidate.  She will probably face a Republican opponent who appeals to a broader spectrum of Kansas Republicans than Kris Kobach did.  There are two likely opponents though more may arise.  One is the state Attorney General who seems to have found a way to keep supporters from both wings of the party. The other is the Lt. Governor who became governor when Sam Brownback escaped from his experiment but lost the gubernatorial primary in 2014 to Kobach by 350 votes.

Notwithstanding the Covid controversies, Laura Kelly is seen as a successful governor.  She would get my vote if I lived in Kansas.  Will she get the vote of Kansans?   She’ll get a little of my money too.  I hope she’ll get some of yours.  She’ll need every dime she can collect to win reelection.

The Cook Report projects the following Democratic governors as Likely, or Leaning Democrat for 2022 rather than as Solidly Democratic.

 Kansas          Laura Kelly (Lean D)

Maine             Janet Mills (Likely D)

Michigan       Gretchen Whitmer (Lean D)

Minnesota    Tim Walz (Likely D)

Nevada          Steve Sisolak (Likely D)

Wisconsin    Tony Evers (Lean D)


Cook thinks Pennsylvania is a Toss up.  The seat is Open due to term limits.

Cook thinks Virginia, where the election is in November, 2021 is Likely D.  We won’t know who the Democratic candidate is until the June primary is over.

 Organizations to support

 The Democratic Governors Association (DGA)  …the only organization dedicated to electing Democratic governors and candidates for governor

The Democratic National Committee (DNC).  The official organization of the Democratic Party