When Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have removed language enshrining reproductive rights in their state, Democrats across the country jumped even harder on the issue as a flashpoint, they say. , would result in a huge turnout following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
But back in Kansas — where Governor Laura Kelly, a Democrat, is fighting a tough re-election battle — the problem is almost untraceable.
Kelly, who polls show is at an impasse with his Republican opponent, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, has instead focused almost exclusively on the economy, tax cuts and education.
Pundits and Democrats say the effort could be key for the vulnerable incumbent prevailing in the majority Red state.
That’s because the path to victory for Kelly, who presides over a state in which registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats almost twice (Republicans make up 44% of registered voters, Democrats 26%, while unaffiliated voters account for 29 percent), relies almost entirely on his ability to appeal to Republican voters, with whom a prominent abortion rights message would not resonate widely.
“What Kelly is doing makes perfect sense,” said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University in Topeka. “In the race for governor of Kansas, she has to get every Democrat, almost every independent, and then every Republican. If she starts talking about abortion, that goes against that, and goes against her brand and her message that she is a bipartisan in the middle of the road.”
Democrats – citing the fact that Republican turnout in the general election will also be significantly higher than in a primary election at the end of the summer – said they agreed with Kelly’s strategy to avoid the topic and suggest it was deliberate.
A National Democratic source familiar with Kelly’s campaign strategy told NBC News that “it is not wrong to tie” the campaign’s decision to avoid abortion to an intentional strategy, but denied that Kelly “dodged” the problem.
“It’s just not central to her brand as a moderate and stable leader who brings both sides together,” the source said.
Kelly, a former state senator, beat Republican Kris Kobach in 2018 by portraying herself as someone who would work across the aisle and focusing heavily on kitchen table issues like the economy and education.
Despite the abortion rights movement’s profound success in last month’s contest in her state, she’s taking the same approach this time around.
No ads run by Kelly’s campaign or outside groups that support her have yet focused on abortion rights, while her social media accounts and campaign appearances are also almost entirely devoid of references to the question. (Kelly and the groups that support her outspent Schmidt and the outside groups that support him, by 41%, or $1.2 million, from August 3, the day after the state’s primary election, until Thursday, according to an AdImpact, a political ad-tracking company).
So while incumbent Democratic governors in tough re-election races on purple battlegrounds, like Tony Evers in Wisconsin, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and Steve Sisolak in Nevada, are focusing heavily on the issue in the hoping it will significantly boost 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 may be 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 his run for the general election,” he added.
Kelly, the only Democratic governor seeking re-election in a state won by former President Donald Trump in 2020, is locked in a close race with Schmidt, a Trump-endorsed three-term attorney general.
Polling for the state’s general election 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 Schmidt’s right, received 3% support, while 8% of voters said they remained undecided. Cook’s nonpartisan political report called the race “a twist of fate”.
Emerson’s poll found the economy was overwhelmingly the issue voters were most concerned about, with 48% saying it was their top priority, while 16% of respondents named access to abortion as the most important issue for them.
“It makes sense that she doesn’t lean in for [abortion]despite the energy [ballot measure]said Spencer Kimball, the poll’s executive director. Kimball explained that despite Kelly’s focus on the economy, she still lags behind voters for whom it matters most. His poll found that voters whose top issue was the economy backed Schmidt 60% to 26%.
“She still has to make inroads in the economy,” he said.
Additionally, Kimball said his poll found voters who didn’t vote on the abortion issue in August — signaling they weren’t motivated enough by the issue to run — are also overwhelmingly in favor of Schmidt.
This amounts to another reason for Kelly to avoid abortion, he said.
It also allows Kelly and her campaign to avoid delving 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 seen as such a controversial issue here, sometimes associated with radical events, and that’s the last thing she wants,” Beatty said. “She wants to appeal to moderation.”
Spokespersons for the Kelly and Schmidt campaigns did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails from NBC News about the role abortion might play in the race.
Schmidt, for his part, has leaned heavily on education in recent weeks, attacking Kelly for pandemic-related school closures and for allowing transgender students to participate in school sports. Kelly, during her tenure, vetoed two bills that would have banned transgender athletes from playing women’s 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 recently campaigned with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who ran traveled to Kansas to support Schmidt.
Yet during a debate between the two candidates at the Kansas State Fair earlier this month, Schmidt accused Kelly of supporting abortion “until the moment of birth,” which isn’t accurate. Kelly has run in the past as a pro-abortion candidate and in recent years has fought against a series of laws that would restrict abortion access in the state. (Abortion in Kansas is legal until the 22nd week of pregnancy. Under state law, women seeking abortion care are subject to several regulations, including a waiting period of 24 hours between consultation of the procedure and parental consent for minors).
That fracas aside, the issue has been virtually absent from Kelly’s campaign, political observers said.
Responding to questions about whether Kelly benefited from avoiding the issue, Sam Newton, a spokesman 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 would win again in 2022 is because we’re producing Democrats, as well as Independents and a good chunk of Republicans as well,” Newton said.
“You can’t win on Democratic turnout in Kansas alone,” he said.