GOP nominee for Kansas governor tries to flip abortion issue

The Republican candidate for Kansas governor tried Saturday to make the Democratic incumbent’s support for abortion rights a political liability, even with a strong statewide vote last month in favor of preserving access to abortion.

GOP nominee Derek Schmidt, a three-term Kansas attorney general, said during a debate at the Kansas State Fair that he respects the Aug. 2 vote, in which voters decisively rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution to allow the GOP-controlled Legislature to greatly restrict or ban abortion. But he argued that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly favors abortion with no restrictions “up to the moment of birth” and public funding for elective abortions.

The statewide vote “does not mean the discussion has ended,” Schmidt told a crowd of about 800 people.

“What was not on the ballot was Gov. Kelly’s position,” he said.

Kelly said she’s confident that she stands with a majority of Kansas in opposing the proposed constitutional change. While she has strongly supported abortion rights throughout her career in politics, she has avoided suggesting that she’d push for the repeal of existing restrictions. That wouldn’t be likely anyway, with Republicans in control of the Legislature.

Asked about Schmidt’s characterization of her position on abortion, she said, “He’s making that up. You know, I have never said that.”

Kelly is the only Democratic governor running for reelection this year from a state carried by former President Donald Trump in 2020, making her a tempting GOP target. Many Republicans still anticipate that frustrations with high inflation and red-state opposition to Democratic President Joe Biden will boost Schmidt’s chances of winning in November.

Schmidt’s television ads seek to tie Kelly to Biden, blame them both for inflation and portray the two Democrats as big-spending liberals, and he continued that throughout the State Fair debate before its raucous crowd, drawing chants from Kelly supporters of “Schmidt’s unfit!” and “Bull-Schmidt!” The fair debate is a tradition for governor’s and U.S. Senate races, and organizers encourage partisans to chant, shout and wave signs as other fairgoers take in exhibitions, ride Midway attractions and sample cuisine such as “moink,” meatballs wrapped in bacon on a stick.

Pat McFerron, a Republican pollster from Oklahoma City who’s worked for Kansas Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, said people concerned most about economic issues tend to be swing voters.

“Two months ago, they were all voting Republican, when gas prices were high,” he said.

But Kelly brushed off the criticism, touting the state’s improved finances and her efforts to lure businesses to Kansas, noting several times that Japanese electronics giant Panasonic Corp. announced in July that it planned to build a multi-billion-dollar plant to manufacture batteries for electric-powered vehicles employing as many as 4,000 people. Kansas is providing $829 million in taxpayer-funded incentives over 10 years.

As for being tied to Biden, Kelly said after the debate, “I have really stayed away from Washington politics.”

Schmidt has promoted conservative causes as attorney general, frequently bringing Kansas into GOP lawsuits against Democratic presidents, though he also has an affable public persona. After the 2020 presidential election, he joined an unsuccessful lawsuit by Texas seeking to overturn the results in four battleground states won by Biden.

He noted several times that he’s been willing to challenge the Biden’s administration on a wide variety of issues, including environmental regulations. He called himself a Republican in the mold of the late U.S. Senate Majority Leader and GOP icon Bob Dole.

“We will stand up and fight back,” Schmidt said in his closing.

Neither candidate has focused much on abortion as an issue, despite the statewide vote in August, though some Democrats have argued that doing so would help Kelly. Schmidt opposes most abortions, saying he’d support exceptions to preserve a woman’s life, in cases of rape and incest and when a fetus as such a debilitating medical condition that it wouldn’t survive after birth.

But the issue arose when the candidates were asked whether they would support retaining six of the seven Kansas Supreme Court justices, who face votes in November on whether they stay on the bench. The proposed anti-abortion amendment was a response to the court’s 2019 ruling declaring access to abortion a “fundamental” right under the state constitution.

Two of the six justices on the ballot were in the 6-1 majority in that 2019 ruling, and another three are Kelly appointees who replaced others. The last justice on the ballot is Caleb Stegall, the dissenter in the case, an appointee of conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback.

Kelly said she would vote to retain the justices, while Schmidt said he would vote to “retain some and not retain others.” He didn’t say which justices he would oppose retaining during the debate and refused to answer questions afterward.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/apjdhanna

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