Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt narrowed in on the well-being of Kansas’ children while trading barbs at the Kansas State Fair Debate on Saturday.
In their first head-to-head exchange of the general election season the candidates, both longtime figures in Kansas politics, relitigated Kelly’s first four years in office.
Kelly, the incumbent, argued she’d pulled the state’s agencies up from budgetary disasters while Schmidt, her GOP challenger, said she overspent and under-delivered. He repeatedly referenced school and business closures from the early days of COVID-19.
A significant portion of the debate focused on education, child welfare and child care.
The State Fair debate, a tradition in Kansas politics, is a lively event with little crowd control, allowing supporters of both candidates to interrupt with cheers and jeers for the full 90 minutes of debate. Kelly’s campaign instructed supporters to chant “Bull Schmidt” at the Republican nominee, but it devolved into a refrain of “bulls***” throughout the debate. Schmidt’s supporters, meanwhile, chanted “lockdown Laura” at the governor in reference to COVID-19 closures.
The environment yielded the harshest exchanges yet between Kelly and Schmidt. State Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha conservative running as an independent, watched from the front row. He was not invited to join the debate despite claiming to have reached the $50,000 fundraising threshold historically used as a bar for entry.
Education and child welfare issues are major theme
Kelly touted her efforts to fully fund Kansas schools and balance Kansas’ budget in the wake of former Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax experiment.
“Derek Schmidt stood by Brownback’s cuts to the schools and he even went to courts to keep those cuts in place,” Kelly said.
Schmidt shot back, insisting funding of schools came from bipartisan work that he defended in the Kansas Supreme Court. Schmidt defended the state in the Gannon lawsuit over school funding. In 2017, before Kelly was elected, lawmakers agreed on a bipartisan formula to phase into constitutional funding of the schools.
“Fully funding schools can only work if you don’t lock the kids out of them after they’re fully funded,” Schmidt said, referencing Kelly’s decision to close school buildings at the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020.
Between 2019 and 2021 student achievement data in Kansas fell. More than 6% more students ranked in the lowest achievement level in mathematics in 2021 while 1.5% fewer students ranked in the highest achievement.
Kelly has long stood by the decision, even as student achievement numbers fell in the past two years. In a Chamber of Commerce forum Tuesday, Kelly said Kansas did not have the tools or knowledge it needed to keep students safe in schools at the time.
“I will never apologize for protecting the lives of our children,” Kelly said Saturday.
The decision to shut down schools earned Kelly praise in some circles and ire in others.
Chelli Cranmer, a 55-year-old Andover teacher, said it is unfair to blame Kelly for fallout from the pandemic.
“It was a shock, but it was the right thing,” Cranmer said. “People were dying.”
But Pat Taggart, a 69-year-old from Towanda, said kids would have been better off in schools, and that Kelly had chosen to support teachers over parents.
“Parents need to have more rights,” Taggart said.
Schmidt also blamed Kelly for the decrease in child care providers after the onset of COVID-19. Kelly said she wanted childcare access to be her legacy and pledged to create a new cabinet position dedicated to childcare if she wins reelection.
Schmidt said Kelly’s administration had endorsed a high regulatory burden that chokes the industry.
“There is too much red tape already,” Schmidt said.
Four years into Kelly’s administration the state’s foster system has improved in some areas, fewer children are in the system, but key problems such as children sleeping in offices and going missing have persisted.
Kelly said Kansas is on its way to being a leader in child welfare. When she took office, Kelly said, the agency was “totally decimated.” But Schmidt pointed to statistics for children sleeping in offices and going missing as evidence that the state had failed to ensure students are safer in the system than they would be outside of it.
The only solution Schmidt offered was to work with the Legislature to establish an independent office of the child advocate. The office Kelly set up by executive order is ineffective, Schmidt argued.
Candidates clash on guns and abortion
The candidates also sparred over the safety of children in schools months after a March school shooting at Olathe East High School in which a school resource officer was injured in an altercation with an armed student who he shot and wounded. Kelly proclaimed her support for the Second Amendment, but said it was past time for “common sense” gun regulations.
“I am not talking about taking guns away from people, what I’m talking about is background checks,” Kelly said.
Schmidt advocated for more funding for school safety measures and mental healthcare. Responsible gun owners, Schmidt said, do not want the government to tell them how to be responsible.
“The Second Amendment is not a suggestion, it is a constitutionally protected right,” Schmidt said.
In addressing Kansas’ overwhelming support of abortion rights last month Schmidt reiterated an earlier statement that Kansans had made their decision and that decision should be respected. When asked by a panelist, Schmidt said he planned to vote to retain some Kansas Supreme Court justices but not all when six of the court’s seven justices stand for retention this fall. He did not specify who or why.
“With respect to the abortion issue, I am pro life,” Schmidt said. “Kansans have decided. Their decision needs to be respected. That does not mean the discussion has ended. It will continue as before.”
Schmidt argued that, even given the vote, Kansans did not want unlimited abortion access that he warned was Kelly’s position. Kelly seemed emboldened by the vote declaring that she agreed with the majority of Kansans that politicians should not make decisions about women’s health.
“I wouldn’t want to live in a state that didn’t protect the rights of all Kansans,” she said.
Schmidt attacks Kelly’s record
Much of the debate was spent on Kelly’s record.
Schmidt sought to paint Kelly as an ineffective leader. When Kelly highlighted legislation eliminating the food sales tax Schmidt noted that no cut had taken effect yet.
Kelly pushed hard for a full and immediate cut to the tax during the Legislative session but Republican leaders in the Legislature insisted on a gradual cut that would not start until after the election.
“Maybe if she actually worked with Republican leaders that wouldn’t have happened,” Schmidt said.
He employed a similar argument on Medicaid Expansion, a priority of Kelly’s that has eluded her in her first term. Each year Kelly has introduced a bill to the Legislature to expand Medicaid, the past two years those bills have not even gotten hearings.
“The Governor is 0 of 4 on her proposals for Medicaid expansion, maybe because she has been an ineffective leader who can’t get things done,” Schmidt said. He added that, if he wins, he will not encourage the Legislature to expand Medicaid because lawmakers have legitimate concerns about expanding government and expanding coverage to “able-bodied adults without dependents who could be working.”
In response, Kelly rattled off a list of accomplishments that she said could not be gained by an ineffective leader including bipartisan legislation and her announcement last month that Panasonic had chosen DeSoto for its $4 billion battery plant. The plant was won with a new economic development program that allowed Kansas to offer the company nearly $830 million in incentives.
At the end of the list, she turned to Schmidt.
“I’ve got to ask you Derek, do you really think we were better off under Sam Brownback?” Kelly asked. By debate rules, Schmidt was not allowed to respond.
“Maybe I’m not flashy but I am effective,” Kelly added in her closing statement.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the figure for Panasonic incentives.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the student in the Olathe East High School shooting was wounded.
This story was originally published September 10, 2022 1:48 PM.