How will Derek Schmidt's sales tax gamble resonate with Kansas voters during gubernatorial race?

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Go to the website kspolitics.org and you’ll find something remarkable: Over 2,000 TV ads from Kansas political campaigns. Dating from 1968 to the present and covering every possible office, it’s the largest political ad archive devoted exclusively to one state in the nation.

Candidates from all political parties and across the ideological spectrum have donated their ads, including Bob Dole, Sam Brownback, Kathleen Sebelius and Pat Roberts, to name just a few.

A perusal of TV ads from victorious Kansas gubernatorial campaigns shows the vital importance candidates place on the issues of taxes and high fees. In 1972, Democratic Gov. Robert Docking’s ad lauds him for signing a property tax lid and researching his tax breaker law.

In 1990, Democratic challenger Joan Finney promises to “Roll back property taxes by 30% and veto any unfair tax measure.”

In 1994, Republican Bill Graves is shown walking down the middle of State Line Road and complaining that “Our Kansas taxes are a lot higher than neighboring states,” and in other ads he pledges to repeal taxes on new construction.

In a 2014 re-election ad for Republican Sam Brownback that now has a cult following, a woman named Becky plaintively looks at the camera and says: “I blame taxes for taking too much of what we earn. So I’m voting for Sam Brownback, and I want to tell you why.”

The list goes on and on. The candidate who can convince voters that he or she is on their side of the tax issue can gain a distinct advantage. Which brings us to the 2022 gubernatorial election between Democratic incumbent Laura Kelly and Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

Kelly opened 2022 calling for an immediate end to Kansas’ food sales tax, the second highest in America. Schmidt agreed it was too high but opted to not forcefully push the issue. While the Legislature ruminated, Kelly grabbed a hatchet and a catch-phrase (“Axe the tax”) and traveled the state advocating for action.

The Legislature did pass a phased food sales tax cut, and Kelly signed the bill — but it doesn’t go into effect until January 2023.

Schmidt has been arguing that Kelly vetoed a food sales tax cut in in 2019 — which is true — and therefore has no credibility on the issue. And that argument might be a strong one. But certainly he took an electoral gamble in ceding the optics of the 2022 food sales tax field to Kelly, especially considering that he actually supported the cut.

One of the more striking TV ads in the kspolitics.org archive is from 1978 when Democrat John Carlin challenged incumbent Republican Gov. Bob Bennett. In the TV ad, Carlin is sitting on a desk with a piece of paper in his hand, and says: “Every month in the mail you get a reminder about why Kansas needs a new governor. I’m talking about your utility bill.”

One can imagine Kelly holding a receipt from Dillon’s and telling Kansans that their food bills are a reminder of why they should keep her in office.

Everything’s a gamble in elections, and it’s possible that Schmidt coasts to victory and the food sales tax cut doesn’t matter. But it’s also possible that Schmidt gifted Kelly an issue she will run on from now until Election Day.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Derek Schmidt is taking a gamble with food sales tax strategy