HUTCHINSON, Kan. — The Kansas State Fair debate is traditionally regarded as the start of the general election — but in 2022, it was defined by an issue that has absorbed Kansas for months: abortion.
Held against the annual bacchanalia of fried food and giant slides, the event marked the first time Gov. Laura Kelly and GOP nominee Attorney General Derek Schmidt had a chance to personally challenge each other on a wide range of issues.
The race has picked up energy in recent weeks after a relatively sedate summer, and that was reflected in the rollicking affair Saturday. Supporters of Kelly and Schmidt traded cheers, jeers and even expletive-laden chants throughout the debate.
But it was abortion that once again was the most significant issue on display, with both candidates engaging in their most prolonged back-and-forth on the issue to date since the Aug. 2 vote to reject a measure that would have eroded state-level abortion rights protections.
Governor’s races: Why we’re eyeing these 10 gubernatorial races in 2022 midterms
Schmidt supported the proposed constitutional amendment and quietly issued a statement on the vote, saying he was disappointed in the result but would respect the outcome, a sentiment he echoed Saturday.
“Kansas voters have decided, their decision has to be respected – which does not mean that the discussion has ended,” he said. “It will continue as before.”
Kelly disagreed, and pointed to the sound defeat of the constitutional amendment as evidence.
“I have no doubt that I stand with the overwhelming majority of Kansans on the issue of a woman’s right to privacy in making her own medical decisions,” Kelly said. “I think 60% of Kansans said they don’t want that government overreach into people’s personal lives. And I’ll tell you something else: I have been consistent on my position on this issue since I entered the state Senate 18 years ago and I will stay consistent.
Both also disagreed on the merits of retaining Kansas Supreme Court justices who issued the ruling that brought about the abortion vote in the first place, a 2019 decision that said the Kansas Constitution protects the right.
Six of the high court justices are up for a retention vote in the fall. Kelly flatly said “yes” when asked if she would support their retention. Schmidt said he would support some and not others, though he did not elaborate which he wished to not retain either during the debate or afterward, when he declined to answer reporter questions.
Kansas economy core part of debate for Kelly, Schmidt
The candidates centered on their core campaign messages over the course of the 90-minute debate but were also keen to trade jabs with each other, more so than at any other point during the campaign to date.
Kelly outlined what she believes to be improvements in state government since taking over from former governors Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer and attempted to tie Schmidt to Brownback’s legacy.
Schmidt, in turn, played down Kelly’s work and said her efforts had served only to increase red tape on everything from child care to agriculture.
“Both candidates hit hard on what their campaigns are about,” Bob Beatty, a professor of political science at Washburn University, said after the debate.
While the abortion flurry occurred late in the debate, the previous hour largely focused on two core issues: the economy and education.
Conservatives nationally have zeroed in on economic and workforce concerns in the midterm elections and the issue, both in agriculture and the larger statewide economy, is expected to be a chief concern for voters in November.
Schmidt has said the state has not fully recovered all of the jobs lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and also has attempted to tie Kelly to national trends of rising inflation and costs.
“When Governor Kelly suggests everything is just fine and everything is working, I suggest she go talk with real Kansans who are trying to hire people,” he said.
In Kansas, the labor force participation rate remains slightly below pre-pandemic levels and the state has regained about 82% of non-farm jobs lost between March and April of 2020.
While that figure is generally regarded as the standard used by economists, Kelly maintains it is disingenuous to exclude farm jobs and other positions in non-profit and other industries that would help show the state has gained jobs.
She has also promoted workforce and economic development, arguing her administration has helped bolster the state’s economic development prospects, pointing to projects like the proposed multi-billion dollar Panasonic electric vehicle battery factory set for DeSoto.
And Kelly pointed to efforts to shepherd through a reduction in the state sales tax on food, which passed the Legislature in 2022 but won’t go into effect until next year, with a full reduction not occurring until 2025.
Republicans have assailed Kelly for vetoing past bills that included a food sales tax cut, though that was bundled with other policy proposals she opposed.
“My opponent wants to claim as if she were the savior of Kansas taxpayers,” Schmidt said. “I ask you this: When you go home, pull out the last receipt and see what your sales tax looks like. It is the same as the day she took office.”
Kelly said she was pleased with the tax cut but wanted legislators to speed up the cut to help shoppers coping with inflation.
“I will put a bill on their desk in January to implement the elimination immediately,” she said.
Candidates face off on special education, COVID-19 lockdowns
Education has long been one of the top issues in the race. Kelly has frequently touted the full funding of schools under her watch, though this has been due to lawmakers following requirements laid out by the Kansas Supreme Court.
Candidates were pressed on the most pressing funding issue: special education. Public school advocates have assailed legislators for falling short of the required 92% funding of special education costs not covered by the federal government.
And while Kelly insisted schools were still fully funded, she acknowledged work was left to be done.
“I will continue to work towards that,” she said. “I will always work to fully fund our schools and keep us out of court so we can focus on the important things we need to be doing in schools.”
Schmidt, meanwhile, has centered on Kelly’s decision to close schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and has said he would sign into law a so-called parents’ bill of rights, which would provide parents greater access to curriculum materials in schools.
“Fully funding schools can only work if you don’t lock the kids out of them after they’re fully funded,” Schmidt said.
Debate kicks off effort to sway ‘middle-of-the-road’ voters
Notably, the debate did not feature either Libertarian Seth Cordell or Dennis Pyle, who will appear on the ballot in November as an independent.
Pyle, a Hiawatha state senator, has skewered both Schmidt and Kelly as too liberal and was indignant that he was not included in the debate, saying organizers did not reach out to his campaign to see if he might meet the qualifications to appear.
Nonetheless, Pyle sat in the front row in plain sight of the debate stage, despite some gentle — or not-so-gentle — ribbing from Republican attendees.
“I just want to be here to debate and I want to participate in the sense that I can see them,” he told reporters. “I will really be surprised if you see any substantive questionnaires that go back to the voting records of these two.”
Undecideds in the crowd seemed to be few and far between, but polls have not shown a clear-cut frontrunner, indicating a toss-up. Both campaigns have accordingly ramped up their efforts to reach voters, particularly undecided moderates.
But the raucous debate, Beatty said, was unlikely to win over those who had yet to make up their mind, and he said opinion would more broadly be shaped by television ads and other messaging over the race’s final eight weeks.
“Moderate, middle-of-the-road voters might be turned off by this kind of debate,” he said. “They may not have gotten a lot out of it, but they’ll be swayed by the campaign going forward.”
There was one Schmidt in attendance who is not sure who he will vote for when he heads to the polls on Nov. 8 — Jim Schmidt, a farmer from Windom who said he considered himself exactly the “middle of the road” voter both candidates were clamoring for.
While Schmidt attended the debate with his wife, he said he was not expecting to have his mind changed. His focus was on choosing a candidate committed to the economy, rural broadband and developing the workforce in his corner of rural McPherson County.
“I want someone who is going to take care of everyone and isn’t going to tear down people,” he said.
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.
Jason Tidd is a statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Tidd.