Kelly was the only Democratic governor running for re-election in a state won by Donald Trump in 2020. Her win keeps a Democrat in the top job in ruby red Kansas for another four years.
Her narrow victory over Schmidt, the state’s three-term attorney general, came after she focused her campaign almost exclusively on the economy, tax cuts, education and her desire to work with Republicans.
That approach marked a notable departure from the one taken by Democrats in more purple states, who focused heavily on abortion — an issue they’d hoped would energize their base in November following the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade.
The move by Kelly was especially surprising, given that it was Kansas — where voters overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have removed language enshrining reproductive rights in their state — that signaled the issue had the potential to drive Democratic turnout following the high court ruling.
Any path to victory for Kelly was always going to rely almost entirely on her ability to appeal to Republican voters. In Kansas, registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats nearly 2 to 1 (Republicans make up 44% of registered voters, Democrats 26%, and unaffiliated voters 29%).
State Sen. Dennis Pyle, a former Republican running as an independent and to the right of Schmidt, may also have been a factor.
Kelly’s move to focus heavily on kitchen-table issues largely mimicked her approach from four years ago, when she defeated Republican Kris Kobach by branding herself as someone who would work across the aisle and prioritize the economy and education. Her ads during the race focused heavily on how she had done just that during her four years in office.
Schmidt, for his part, had in recent weeks leaned in heavily on education, attacking Kelly for pandemic-related school closings and for allowing transgender students to participate in school sports. Kelly has vetoed two bills that would have banned transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s sports in school and college.