‘Clear demonstration’: Kansas Republicans use session to build case against Gov. Kelly

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When Kansas Republicans failed to pass a major proposal through the Legislature in April linking education funding to an expansion of school choice, conservative lawmakers vowed to try again.

They say one factor could make all the difference in the future.

“You know what? When we have our Republican governor we’ll have school choice,” Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, said last month.

Republicans hope to capitalize on both the party’s victories and defeats during the legislative session that ended last week to excite their base as Gov. Laura Kelly heads into the final year and a half of her first term. The general election remains more than a year away, but Republicans are using the session to build their case against the Democratic governor.

Republicans deployed a strengthened supermajority this spring to pass an array of conservative priorities. Kelly responded with more vetoes than any Kansas governor in at least 17 years.

GOP lawmakers headed into some debates fully anticipating a veto and proceeding anyway — welcoming fights that were also opportunities to show clear divisions between them and the Democratic governor.

The Democratic governor vetoed bills banning transgender student athletes, setting civic and financial literacy requirements in high schools, changing tax policy and lowering the age to carry a concealed weapon to 18. Whether the Legislature overrode the vetoes or not, Republicans say they were strengthening their chances against Kelly in 2022.

Together, they amount to an opening volley in what will likely be a bitterly fought campaign season.

Kelly is the only incumbent Democratic governor running for re-election in 2022 in a state won by former President Donald Trump. And no candidate for Kansas governor since Republican Mike Hayden in 1986 has won election or re-election while their party has held the White House.

“With the veto overrides, I think there’s a very clear demonstration that Gov. Kelly is out of step with Kansas values,” Kansas Republican Party Chair Mike Kuckelman said.

In a statement, Kelly’s office said the governor had signed 93 bipartisan bills, which it said were more than the past two sessions combined. “The Governor also kept her promise - and after years of litigation, fully funded schools each year she has been in office and guaranteed funding for fiscal year ‘22 and ‘23,” Kelly spokesperson Lauren Fitzgerald said.

The beginning of the end?

The Republican focus on Kelly’s vetoes comes as the party braces for a primary fight between Attorney General Derek Schmidt and former Gov. Jeff Colyer that could turn attention to their own records in office. The 2018 GOP primary, between Colyer and Kris Kobach, became an intense intraparty brawl that at times pushed the Democratic race into the background.

By highlighting Kelly’s legislative record, Republicans are setting up the Legislature as a kind of placeholder opponent until GOP voters choose a nominee in August 2022.

“The final days of the 2021 session marked the beginning of the end of Gov. Kelly’s administration,” Colyer said in a statement. “It’s clear Gov. Kelly has lost the ability to lead effectively, and is out-of-touch with the issues facing everyday Kansans.”

Schmidt said the session produced good public policy for Kansas. Tax relief, expanded gun rights and emergency management laws amended to protect against what Republicans regarded as executive overreach were all core conservative measures, he said.

“Each of these important tasks could have been more readily accomplished with cooperation instead of resistance from the governor’s office,” Schmidt said in a statement.

Kelly, speaking to reporters Monday, said Republican efforts to build a case against her “didn’t just start this session.”

“Honestly, if I were in their shoes I would have been doing the same thing. But what I hope is that they don’t try to push through really bad legislation, bad policy just for political reasons,” Kelly said. “I don’t think it does them any good and it certainly doesn’t do the state any good.”

Kelly easily won the governor’s race in 2018, defeating Kobach 48% to 43%. She campaigned on relatively popular issues: Medicaid expansion and fully-funding education.

But the midterm election in 2020, coming months into a pandemic where Kelly was often the public face of mask mandates and restrictions on gatherings that were unpopular among some local officials, both grew the ranks of Republican legislators and replaced moderates with conservatives. The result was a more antagonistic Legislature.

“I think they felt emboldened to test their limits,” Sen. Marci Francisco, a Lawrence Democrat, said.

Kansas Democratic Party Chair Vicki Hiatt said Republicans spent the session “promoting divisive, job-killing legislation” while Kelly led with her agenda, “signaling to companies across the world that Kansas is open for business.”

Kelly, while acknowledging “disappointments” with the session, is emphasizing bipartisan accomplishments, including fully funding K-12 education for a third year in a row.

“When I look at all of those kinds of things we were able to get done, I see it as successful,” Kelly said.

Areas of agreement

Some Republicans acknowledge that even amid a politically-charged atmosphere, conservative legislators found areas of agreement with the Democratic governor. Rep. Ken Rahjes, an Agra Republican, said it would “take pages” to recount everything the two parties agreed on and “maybe a few columns” for the disagreements.

After the Senate deadlocked 20-20 in April on a significant expansion of school choice, the Legislature last week approved a more modest plan. Kelly, who hasn’t taken action on the proposal yet, has said she disagrees with parts of the bill but also that she has sought bipartisan solutions.

The Legislature also approved an overhaul of the state’s unemployment system and revisions to emergency management laws that Kelly signed into law. And the House passed a bill to legalize medical marijuana, which Kelly has long supported.

But at other times the divisions were clear.

Republicans had been trying for the past two years to pass $130 million in tax cuts and $35 million in new sales taxes. Democrats warned the proposal would lead to budget problems last seen under Gov. Sam Brownback, but Republicans overrode Kelly’s veto to place the measure into law.

“When you get a supermajority, you’re pretty confident you’re representing the values of Kansans across the state,” Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican, said.

The Star’s Katie Bernard contributed reporting

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