Why is Derek Schmidt using trans kids to get elected governor in Kansas? That’s all he’s got.

Tammy Ljungblad/tljungblad@kcstar.com

This might be the most depressing Kansas governor’s race in living memory.

Depressing, because Derek Schmidt, the Republican challenger to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, has succeeded in making it mostly about trans kids and whether they should be allowed to play school sports.

Depressing, because a small, powerless group of kids is being scapegoated for political purposes. Depressing, because those Kansas kids are seeing precious little mercy from an adult who wants to lead the state. Depressing because even if you have concerns or questions about the issue, it’s still not the first- or fifth- or tenth-most important challenge facing the Sunflower State now or over the next four years.

Kansas will not rise or fall depending on whether the occasional trans girl gets to play on her school’s basketball team. It just won’t.

So the question, then, is why? Why is this the thing we’re talking about?

One possibility: Schmidt simply doesn’t have much else in his campaign’s toolkit to bring Kelly down. The governor might be a Democrat, but to a remarkable degree she has governed like a Republican in a state filled with Republican voters.

Last November, Kelly came out against President Biden’s workplace vaccine mandate for the COVID vaccine, one of the first elected Democrats in the country to do so.

In April, she signed a bill essentially banning so-called “sanctuary cities” in the state, a measure aimed at blocking a “safe and welcoming” Wyandotte County ordinance that limited how much local police could cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

And around the same time, she signed bills that cut property taxes and will soon start to eliminate sales taxes on groceries.

Kelly hasn’t taken GOP friendly positions on every issue, of course. For example, she vetoed a pair of “elections security” bills in the spring, both designed to take advantage of Republican hysteria and conspiracy theorizing over Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential election. But the Kansas Legislature and its Republican supermajority overrode the veto, and the bills became law.

Don’t give Kelly too much credit — or blame — for her positions on these issues. She’s running a campaign boasting of her ability to govern in bipartisan fashion, replete with endorsements from former GOP governors Mike Hayden and Bill Graves, but the truth is that Kansas Republicans didn’t give her much room to run or govern from the left. She has done what she needed to do to survive politically.

But that doesn’t leave Schmidt much room to convince Kansas voters that big changes are required at Cedar Crest, either.

An election involving a sitting governor isn’t really a straight-up contest between candidates. Instead, it’s mostly a referendum on the incumbent’s leadership. That’s even true for a Democratic governor facing a largely Republican electorate.

So Schmidt’s job is to make the case to voters that Kelly has failed. That the state can do better. Only Schmidt probably wouldn’t have done much differently from Kelly on vaccines, sanctuary cities and taxes. He wouldn’t have gotten a different result on the election bills, either — he only would have streamlined their passage into law. “The same, but slightly faster,” isn’t really a compelling slogan for an anti-incumbent campaign.

Which leaves Schmidt with trans kids as his “best” issue to draw distinctions with Kelly. He just doesn’t have much else to work with.

What all this means, though, is that those kids are being used as a diversion in a stunningly substance-free campaign — one that is largely avoiding the question of what the state’s future should look like and how to get there. That should be insulting to all Kansas voters. Instead, Kansans are enduring another round of culture warfare. That might be good for Schmidt’s political prospects, but it’s terrible for trans kids. And depressing for all of us.