The GOP candidate for governor of Kansas is trying to flip the abortion issue

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — The Republican candidate for Kansas governor tried Saturday to make establishment Democrats’ support for abortion rights a political liability, even with a strong statewide vote last month to keep access to abortion.

GOP candidate Derek Schmidt, a three-term Kansas attorney general, said during a debate at the Kansas State Fair that he respects the Aug. 2 vote in which voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution to allow the GOP-controlled legislature to greatly restrict or ban abortion. But he argued that Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly favors unrestricted abortion “until the moment of birth” and public funding for elective abortions.

The statewide vote “doesn’t mean the debate is over,” Schmidt told a crowd of about 800 people.

“What wasn’t on the ballot was Governor Kelly’s seat,” he said.

Kelly said she is confident she supports the majority of Kansas in opposing the proposed constitutional change. While she has strongly supported abortion rights throughout her political career, she has stopped short of suggesting that she will push to remove existing restrictions. That wouldn’t be possible anyway, with Republicans controlling the legislature.

Asked about Schmidt’s characterization of her position on abortion, she said, “He’s making this up. You know, I’ve never said that.”

Kelly is the only Democratic governor running for re-election this year from a state that former President Donald Trump carried in 2020, making her a tempting target for the GOP. Many Republicans still expect frustrations with high inflation and red-state opposition to Democratic President Joe Biden to boost Schmidt’s chances of winning in November.

Schmidt’s TV ads seek to tie Kelly to Biden, blame them both for inflation and portray the two Democrats as big-spending liberals, and he continued to do so throughout the State Fair debate before of her raucous crowd, drawing chants from Kelly’s supporters of “Schmidt’s unfit! ” and “Bull-Schmidt!” Fair debate is a tradition for the governor’s and U.S. Senate races, and organizers encourage partisans to chant, shout and wave signs as other fests take in fairs, ride Midway attractions and sample cuisine such as “moink “, bacon-wrapped meatballs on a stick.

Pat McFerron, a Republican pollster from Oklahoma City who worked for Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, said those most concerned about economic issues tend to be swing voters.

“Two months ago, everybody was voting Republican when gas prices were high,” he said.

But Kelly dismissed the criticism, touting the state’s improving finances and her efforts to attract business to Kansas, noting several times that Japanese electronics giant Panasonic Corp. announced in July that it planned to build a multibillion-dollar factory to make batteries for electric vehicles that would employ up to 4,000 people. Kansas is providing $829 million in taxpayer-funded incentives over 10 years.

As for the bond with Biden, Kelly said after the debate, “I’ve really stayed out of Washington politics.”

Schmidt has promoted conservative causes as attorney general, often bringing Kansas to GOP lawsuits against Democratic presidents, though he also maintains a gentle public persona. After the 2020 presidential election, he joined an unsuccessful Texas lawsuit seeking to overturn results in four battleground states won by Biden.

He noted several times that he was willing to challenge the Biden administration on a wide variety of issues, including environmental regulations. He called himself a Republican in the mold of the late US Senate Majority Leader and GOP icon Bob Dole.

“We’re going to stand up and fight back,” Schmidt said in closing.

Neither candidate has focused much on abortion as an issue despite the statewide vote in August, though some Democrats have argued that doing so would help Kelly. Schmidt opposes most abortions, saying he would support exceptions to preserve a woman’s life, in cases of rape and incest, and when a fetus has such a debilitating medical condition that it would not survive birth.

But the issue arose when the candidates were asked whether they would support keeping six of the seven Kansas Supreme Court justices, who face votes in November on whether to remain on the bench. The proposed anti-abortion amendment was a response to a 2019 court ruling that declared access to abortion a “fundamental” right under the state constitution.

Two of the six justices on the ballot had a 6-1 majority in that 2019 decision, and three others are Kelly appointees who replaced others. The last judge on the ballot is Caleb Stegall, the dissenter in the case, an appointee of conservative GOP Gov. Sam Brownback.

Kelly said she would vote to keep the judges, while Schmidt said he would vote “to keep some and not to keep others.” He did not say which judges he would oppose keeping during the debate and declined to take questions afterward.

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