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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly sidesteps abortion in tough re-election battle

Abortion rights advocates had a big victory in Kansas this summer, but experts say Kelly is smart to avoid the issue.
Amelia Earhart Statue Dedication at the U.S. Capitol
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly speaks at the dedication of a statue of Amelia Earhart in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol on July 27.Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP file

When Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have removed language enshrining reproductive rights in their state, Democrats across the country pounced even harder on the issue as a flash point they said would drive huge turnout following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

But back in Kansas — where Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, is fighting a tough re-election battle— the issue is almost nowhere to be seen.

Kelly, who polls show is in a dead heat with her Republican challenger, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, has instead focused almost exclusively on the economy, tax cuts and education.

Experts and Democrats say the effort could be key to the vulnerable incumbent prevailing in the overwhelmingly red state.

That’s because the path to victory for Kelly, who presides over a state in which registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats nearly two to one (Republicans make up 44% of registered voters, Democrats comprise 26%, while unaffiliated voters constitute 29%), relies almost entirely on her ability to appeal to Republican voters, with whom a prominent pro-abortion rights message wouldn’t largely resonate.

“What Kelly is doing makes perfect sense," said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka. "In a governor’s race in Kansas, she has to get every single Democrat, almost all the independents, and then all the moderate Republicans. If she starts talking about abortion, it works against that, and works against her brand and her messaging that she’s a middle of the road bipartisan."

Democrats — citing the fact that Republican turnout for a general election will also be substantially higher than in a late summer primary election contest — said they agree with Kelly’s strategy to steer clear of the topic and suggest it was deliberate.

​A national Democratic source familiar with the Kelly campaign strategy told NBC News that “it’s not wrong to connect” the campaign’s decision to avoid abortion with an intentional strategy but denied that Kelly was “dodging” the issue.

“It’s just not central to her brand as a moderate, middle of the road steady leader who brings both parties together,” the source said.

Kelly, a former state senator, defeated Republican Kris Kobach in 2018 by branding herself as someone who would work across the aisle and by focusing heavily on kitchen-table issues like the economy and education.

Despite the profound success of the pro-abortion rights movement in last month’s contest in her state, she is taking the same approach this time around.

Not one ad run by Kelly’s campaign or by outside groups supporting her has yet focused on abortion rights, while her social media accounts and campaign appearances are also almost entirely devoid of references to the issue. (Kelly, and groups supporting her, have outspent Schmidt, and outside groups supporting him, by 41%, or $1.2 million, from Aug. 3, the day after the state’s primary election, through Thursday, according to an AdImpact, a political ad-tracking firm).

So while incumbent Democratic governors in tough re-election races in purple battlegrounds, like Tony Evers in Wisconsin, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Steve Sisolak in Nevada, focus heavily on the issue with the expectation that it will significantly drive Democratic turnout, Kelly can do no such thing, because she can’t afford to risk alienating the Republican and independent voters she needs to win.

“I think the abortion vote is possibly very instructive nationally, and for other states, but not for Kansas,” Beatty said. “It would be unwise” for Kelly to “rely on the same strategy” in her general election race,” he added.

Kelly, the only Democratic governor running for re-election in a state won by former President Donald Trump in 2020, is locked in a close race with Schmidt, a three-term state attorney general endorsed by Trump.

General election polling in the state has been sparse, though an Emerson College survey released earlier this week showed Kelly leading Schmidt 45% to 43%, within the margin of error. State Sen. Dennis Pyle, a former Republican running as an independent and to the right of Schmidt, received 3% support, while 8% of voters said they remained undecided. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report has rated the race a “toss-up.”

The Emerson poll found that the economy was overwhelmingly the issue voters cared most about, with 48% saying it was their top priority while 16% of respondents named abortion access as the issue that was most important to them.

“It makes sense that she wouldn’t lean in to [abortion], despite the energy from the [ballot measure],” said Spencer Kimball, the poll’s executive director. Kimball explained that, despite Kelly’s focus on the economy, she is still behind with voters to whom it matters most. His poll found that voters whose top issue was the economy supported Schmidt 60% to 26%.

“She still needs to make inroads on the economy,” he said. 

In addition, Kimball said his poll found that voters who didn’t vote on the August abortion question — signaling they weren’t sufficiently motivated by the issue to turn out — are also overwhelmingly breaking for Schmidt.

That amounts to another reason for Kelly to avoid abortion, he said.

Doing so also allows Kelly and her campaign to avoid wading into the violent history surrounding abortion rights activism in the state. 

In 1986, an abortion clinic in Wichita was bombed. Seven years later, an anti-abortion activist shot and wounded George Tiller, a Kansas doctor who performed abortions and was murdered by another anti-abortion activist in 2009.

“It’s traditionally just been seen as such a controversial issue here, associated sometimes with radical events, and that’s the last thing she wants," Beatty said. "She wants to appeal to moderation.”

Spokespeople for both the Kelly and Schmidt campaigns did not respond to several phone calls and emails from NBC News about the role abortion could play in the race. 

Schmidt, for his part, has in recent weeks leaned in heavily to education, attacking Kelly for pandemic-related school closures and for having allowed transgender students to participate in school sports. Kelly, during her tenure, has vetoed two bills that would have banned transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s sports in school and college. On Thursday, Schmidt campaigned with Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, who narrowly won his own race by focusing on education, and also campaigned recently with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who traveled to Kansas to support Schmidt.

Still, at a debate between the two candidates at the Kansas State Fair earlier this month, Schmidt accused Kelly of supporting abortion “up until the moment of birth,” which is not accurate. Kelly has painted herself in the past as a pro-abortion rights candidate and has fought against a raft of laws in recent years that would restrict abortion access in the state. (Abortion in Kansas is legal up until the 22nd week of pregnancy. Under state law, women seeking abortion care are subject to several regulations, including a 24-hour waiting period between the consultation the procedure, and parental consent for minors).

Aside from that fracas, the issue has been virtually absent from Kelly's campaign, politics watchers said.

Responding to questions about whether Kelly benefited from avoiding the issue, Sam Newton, a spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association, pointed to the strategy that helped Kelly win four years ago.

"The reason she won in 2018 and the reason she’d win again in 2022 is because we turn out Democrats, along with independents and a decent chunk of Republicans, too,” Newton said. 

 “You can’t win on Democratic turnout alone in Kansas,” he said.