Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and her Republican challenger, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, tried ducking out from under the shadows that have trailed them for the better part of this year’s race for governor.
In a nearly hourlong debate Wednesday sponsored by the Johnson County Bar Association, Kelly tried to shed efforts by Schmidt to link her to the policies of President Joe Biden while Schmidt tried to distance himself from former GOP Gov. Sam Brownback.
Kelly and Schmidt got the chance to directly confront each other about Biden and Brownback in front of a packed ballroom at the DoubleTree Hotel in Overland Park.
It was their second and last debate before the Nov. 8 election in a race that’s believed to be very tight and is likely to cost in excess of $30 million in broadcast advertising alone.
Kelly opened the line of inquiry, reprising a question that she asked Schmidt at the Kansas State Fair about whether Kansans were better off under Brownback.
This time, Kelly asked Schmidt whether he would have vetoed the tax bill that Brownback signed into law in 2012 that was blamed for blowing holes in the state budget.
“Everybody in this room remembers what this state looked like four years ago,” Kelly told the audience of lawyers.
“Knowing what we know now about what a tax experiment did to our state, including our schools, would you veto it if it came across your desk?” Kelly asked Schmidt as she gestured toward him with a pen in her left hand.
Schmidt said he would have vetoed the bill, which was pushed through by Republicans after it was voted down but was brought back to life in the Senate and approved in the House.
“The math has to work,” Schmidt said.
The attorney general noted that a Democratic-affiliated political action committee has spent millions since last spring linking him to the tax cuts Brownback signed into law.
“You’ve run like $9 million in television ads that just don’t accurately describe either my views or our history,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt said Kelly had an “unhealthy obsession” with Brownback.
“The fact of the matter is no matter how many times she says it, the fact of the matter is Kansans are far less worried about what some former governor did or mistakes he made than they are the mistake this administration is making,” he said.
He then turned the issue back on Kelly, who was in the minority in the Senate at the time and wasn’t a key player in the politics that led to the bill getting passed.
“The fact of the matter is you were in the Legislature when all of that happened, and you failed to stop at it at that point,” Schmidt told Kelly.
“Despite what you may have said, you didn’t get the job done,” he said.
Schmidt noted that he was not in the Legislature at the time the tax cuts were enacted. He would have been in his second year as attorney general at the time.
“I was never actually in the Legislature at the time all of those decisions were made,” Schmidt said.
“You want to focus on things that happened a long time ago with folks that are not on this stage – at least one of us wasn’t,” Schmidt told Kelly.
“I want to focus on where this state is going,” he said.
Schmidt turned the tables on Kelly.
“I have a question for you, governor: Do you think the America and Kansas are better off than before Joe Biden was elected president?” Schmidt said as he pointed cross stage at Kelly.
The governor dismissed the question.
“I’m not going to answer that question,” Kelly said.
“For my entire time in the Senate and my entire time in the governor’s office, I have stayed focused like a laser on Kansas, not on the federal government.”
Schmidt then answered his own question.
“The answer for me is no, America is not better with Joe Biden as president,” Schmidt said before criticizing the president’s plan to erase billions of dollars in outstanding debt on student loans.
“The governor doesn’t want to talk about that the leader of her political party, President Biden, is taking this country and affecting this state in ways that are tremendously negative,” Schmidt said.
Kelly stressed that her emphasis was on Kansas.
“I think as you look back on my record, we have done a very good job and Kansas is in a whole lot better shape now than it was four years ago,” she said.
The governor expressed a little impatience when Schmidt said Kelly’s promise to keep schools fully funded was not sufficient to be the state’s chief executive.
The governor and her supporters in public education circles have pushed back hard against Schmidt’s efforts to claim the education issue, especially with a recent ad criticizing her for the school closures at the start of the pandemic.
“It is critical that we keep Kansas schools constitutionally funded,” Schmidt said. “I’ve committed to that, and we are going to do that as any governor would because it’s legally required in this state.”
“It’s not enough to write the check. It doesn’t accomplish what we need for our kids to fully fund schools and then lock kids out of them,” Schmidt said, relying on campaign theme alluding to the governor’s decision to close schools during the pandemic.
He then alluded to the need for a parents bill of rights.
“Parents are much more engaged as a group right now than they were before because they saw firsthand, up close and personal, things that happened with their kids and the damage done to them,” he said.
“They want more involvement. We must advocate for that.”
Kelly offered a tepid response, criticizing him for defending plans for funding schools that were struck down in the courts, although he did defend the plan in 2019 that found school funding was adequate.
“I have a hard time being lectured by you, Derek, about our public schools,” she said.
“It was you who was in the courts defending the cuts to public education under the Brownback administration”