WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Governor Laura Kelly has won her bid for another term in office. On Wednesday morning, NBC and CNN projected Kelly would win re-election over Derek Schmidt. The Associated Press waited several more hours, eventually calling Kelly the winner around noon Wednesday.
Kelly was the only Democratic governor running for reelection this year in a state carried by former President Donald Trump in 2020. Republican challenger Schmidt, the state's three-term attorney general, tied Kelly to President Joe Biden and blamed the two Democrats for high inflation.
During a speech to supporters in Topeka shortly after midnight Tuesday, she stopped short of declaring victory but said she was optimistic as she sent her backers home.
“We feel really good,” Kelly said. “There are just a few more votes that need to be counted.”
Schmidt also sent his supporters home.
“Unfortunately, we'll have to wait a bit longer to get the final verdict,” Schmidt told a GOP gathering in Topeka.
Advance voting before Tuesday suggested that the turnout would exceed the unusually high number of ballots cast for the August election on the abortion question.
Democrats were energized in August by a statewide vote decisively rejecting a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that would have cleared the way for tighter restrictions on abortion or a ban of the procedure. Schmidt supported the measure while Kelly opposed it, but it wasn’t clear how much staying power the issue had as Kelly emphasized other issues.
Anne Melia, a 59-year-old Democrat who spent weeks in the summer going door to door in the Kansas City area to campaign against the abortion measure, said she knocked on more than 1,000 doors in the fall and found it harder to get out the vote for Kelly and other Democratic candidates.
“There just wasn't that same intensity,” she said Tuesday. “It's this partisan thing where people don't necessarily see the through line about their rights.”
Independent and moderate Republicans were key, having swung to Kelly in 2018 in her race against then-Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a nationally known hardline provocateur on immigration and voter ID issues. Schmidt hoped to win them back, but his effort was complicated by a challenge from his right from an independent candidate, state Sen. Dennis Pyle, one of the Legislature's most conservative members.
Kelly's fundraising for her reelection campaign approached $8 million, while Schmidt raised about $4 million in cash contributions, though in late October the Kansas GOP was paying for mailings for him. Spending on television ads by the candidates and outside groups exceeded $40 million.
Schmidt echoed Republican candidates across the U.S. in trying to tie the Democratic incumbent to Biden. In their second and final debate, Kelly refused to answer when he asked whether she thought Kansans were better off than they were two years ago, adding, “I have stayed focused like a laser on Kansas, not on the federal government.”
Kelly also touted her efforts to lure new jobs to Kansas, suggesting that work helped the state weather national economic problems. Less than a week before Tuesday's election, she participated in a groundbreaking ceremony in the Kansas City area for a multibillion-dollar mega-factory for electronics giant Panasonic Corp. to build electric-vehicle batteries, attracted by taxpayer-funded incentives worth $829 million over 10 years, the largest package the state had ever offered a private business.
Kelly ran as the self-described “education governor,” touting higher spending on public schools, the state’s improved finances and efforts to lure businesses to the state. Democrats tried to link Schmidt to former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who launched a nationally notorious experiment in cutting income taxes in 2012 and 2013 that was followed by huge, persistent budget shortfalls.
Schmidt chided Kelly for what he called her “unhealthy obsession” with Brownback. He also sought to turn the issue of education against her by highlighting her March 2020 pandemic-related decision to close K-12 school buildings until the fall.
Mel Adams, an 80-year-old Republican from Topeka, said the economy was the key issue, adding that people are fed up with Democrats. He dismissed Kelly's attempts to link Schmidt to Brownback and didn't think much of her portraying herself as politically in the middle of the road.
“That's where roadkill happens,” he said.
Schmidt also painted Kelly as anti-police for calling systemic racism a problem following the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And Republicans highlighted Kelly's vetoes of two proposals to ban transgender girls and women from girls' and women's school, club and college sports teams.
Republicans won three other statewide races. State Rep. Steven Johnson unseated Democratic State Treasurer Lynn Rogers, and Secretary of State Scott Schwab and Insurance Commissioner Vicki Schmidt were reelected.
Kansans voted yes to keeping six justices on the state Supreme Court for another six years, even though five were targeted for removal by the state's most influential anti-abortion group. The court ruled in 2019 that access to abortion is protected by the Kansas Constitution.
Finally, voters approved a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution making it harder to remove county sheriffs from office.
In the latest KSN News/Emerson College/The Hill poll, conducted 10 days before the election, Kelly had 46% of the support for re-election. Schmidt had 43%. Independent candidate Dennis Pyle got about 5% of the vote, and 4% of voters were still undecided. The margin of error was +/- 3 percentage points.
In the campaign ads leading up to Election Day, Kelly focused on being a middle-of-the-road candidate, saying she is willing to work across party lines to get things accomplished. The ads also showed her as good for business and education.
Schmidt's campaign ads called Kelly anti-police and focused on her actions during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic and her vetoes of two proposals to ban transgender girls and women from women's sports.