(Updated to add interview with Schmidt and Democratic Party reaction)
Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt on Tuesday announced his candidacy for governor in 2022, setting off a likely GOP primary between two titans in Kansas politics.
After flirting with running for governor for months, Schmidt launched his campaign for the governor’s mansion after serving as the state’s chief law enforcement officer since 2011.
Schmidt, 53, will likely face former Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, who has already started raising money for a campaign and emerged as a central player in Republican politics after losing a bid for governor three years ago.
The winner would face Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who has already waged battles with Schmidt over restrictions on religious gatherings during the pandemic, sales tax collections from out-of-state retailers and her emergency powers.
“I think Kansans will want to move forward and not backwards,” Schmidt said in an interview Tuesday morning when asked about how he would differentiate himself from former Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration.
“I am a proven winner in statewide elections,” Schmidt said. “I think that’s going to be appealing to Kansans while the sting of losing the governor’s office last time still persists.”
Colyer, who has not formally announced his candidacy, immediately staked out the conservative turf for the upcoming primary.
Colyer, who served a lieutenant governor under former Gov. Sam Brownback, criticized Schmidt for working as a legislative assistant for former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, who endorsed Democrat Barbara Bollier for the U.S. Senate last year.
“It’s good that Kansas voters will now have a clear choice between me, the conservative candidate, and Derek Schmidt who has spent over 20 years carrying water for the most liberal elements of the Kansas Republican Party,” Colyer said in a statement.
Yet, Schmidt noted that Kansas Republicans do not want to lose to Kelly again in 2022 like they did three years ago when she defeated Kris Kobach.
“I just think the opportunity to move forward to have a proven winner on the ballot is going to be very appealing to many Kansans who want to take back the governor’s office.”
Schmidt portrayed himself more as a conservative pragmatist than an idealogue, pointing out that he had to work with a Democratic governor when he was in the state Senate
“I have strongly held views and a conservative philosophy. I also recognize that at the end of the day state government has to operate,” he said.
“Right now, we have strong conservative majorities in the Legislature and I would look forward to working with them to move state government ahead in a conservative direction,” he said.
“I have been privileged to lead part of state government for some time and I have a proven record of accomplishment and success,” he said.
“I’m one who thinks if you’re entrusted to lead, you have to make sure what you’re entrusted with is operated efficiently and effectively,” he said.
“I’m pragmatic about that and I want to make state government function efficient and effectively.”
Within hours of Schmidt’s announcement, Kelly’s campaign sent out a fundraising email to supporters.
“We want to make one thing extremely clear: Kansans cannot afford to have a governor who will support the same policies that sank our economy, underfunded our schools, and attacked our rural healthcare services,” the fundraising email said.
“And if we lose Laura’s re-election, that’s exactly what will happen,” the email said.
Schmidt’s decision to run for governor represents a culmination of more than 20 years in Kansas politics that started in 2000, when he was elected to the Kansas Senate.
Schmidt, a native of Independence, represented District 15 in the state Senate, where he served as majority leader from 2005 to 2010.
Like Colyer, Schmidt, too, has taken on a higher profile in recent years as he positioned himself to run for governor.
The attorney general has had a larger presence in the statehouse, advocating for bills that would require high school students to pass a civics course and ban e-cigarettes and vaping at most indoor locations.
Most recently, Schmidt joined with a group of Republican legislative leaders to back a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to veto executive agency regulations.
The attorney general also has joined a number of national, high-profile court cases, which included joining a brief with 16 other states in support of what was described as a “Hail Mary” lawsuit seeking to throw out the results of the presidential election.
The attorney general drew blowback over the presidential election lawsuit, especially from Democrats who said it was an embarrassment to the state, although Colyer criticized him on social media for not moving fast enough to join the lawsuit.
Schmidt also joined a brief with 15 other states in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to reexamine a court ruling that found a Michigan funeral home violated federal law when it fired a transgender employee.
The appeals court found that the funeral home violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bars employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
The Supreme Court ruled against the funeral home, finding that federal employment discrimination law protects LGBTQ workers.
Two years ago, Schmidt’s office successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, the first time in modern Kansas history that the state had three cases pending before the high court at one time.
Schmidt won an appeal of a state Supreme Court decision, which overturned three identity theft convictions because federal law preempted state prosecutions for using false or stolen personal information contained in federal immigration forms.
His office also successfully defended the constitutionality of a police vehicle stop in Douglas County for a revoked driver’s license based on the registration of the pickup truck.
And he successfully defended the Kansas insanity-defense law, turning back an appeal from James Kahler who shot to death four family members on Thanksgiving weekend 2009.
However, Schmidt ran into questions in January about his connections to a dark money group associated with the Republican Attorneys General Association that sent out automated calls urging people to march on the U.S. Capitol the day before rioters stormed the building.
Schmidt told various media outlets that he left Rule of Law Defense Fund’s board last summer and hasn’t had anything to do with the group’s decisions since departing.
Schmidt said he was not aware of the automated calls until they surfaced in media reports and that he let the group’s leadership team know he “strongly” disapproved.
A week earlier, Schmidt issued a statement condemning the violence at the Capitol, calling it “sickening, shameful, inexcusable and counterproductive.”
Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Vicki Hiatt said Schmidt represents a replay of the Brownback administration.
“Derek Schmidt is a cookie-cutter politican cut in the same mold as Sam Brownback and Kris Kobach,” Hiatt said in a statement.
“He has traded official favors for campaign contributions, spread lies about the legitimacy of our elections to win political favor with the far-right members of his party, and cost Kansas taxpayers millions of dollars defending Kobach’s unconstitutional lawsuits,” she said.
“Returning to Brownback’s failed policies of broken budgets and underfunded public schools would sabotage Kansas’ economic recovery from COVID-19 and hurt students returning to school and trying to make up for lost time.”