Kansas Gov. Kelly and AG Schmidt focus on Brownback, Biden in Johnson County debate

In their Wednesday debate, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and Attorney General Derek Schmidt focused in on two politicians who were not on the stage and won’t be on the ballot in November — the president and a former governor.

The second and final debate in the race for Kansas governor was hosted by the Johnson County Bar Association at the Double Tree Hotel in Overland Park, where Kansas attorneys and politicos in attendance enjoyed a banquet lunch as the two contenders traded barbs.

Kelly, the Democratic incumbent, leaned on her record over the last few years and returned to a common refrain comparing GOP nominee Schmidt to former Gov. Sam Brownback.

Meanwhile, Schmidt insisted the comparisons were disingenuous and sought to tie Kelly to Democratic President Joe Biden whose national approval rating fell to 40% this week after persistent inflation, according to a Tuesday poll from Reuters and Ipsos.

The campaign for Kansas governor has heated up in recent weeks with Kelly and Schmidt trading barbs over education policy and funding. The full debate will air on Kansas City PBS at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

On questions of education, budget and taxes Kelly repeatedly invoked memories of budget woes prompted by Brownback’s tax experiment and Kansas’ decade-long legal battle over school funding.

Gov. Laura Kelly, shown, and Attorney General Derek Schmidt square off in a final gubernatorial debate before November’s election Wednesday, October 5, 2022, at the Doubletree Hotel in Overland Park. Emily Curiel/ecuriel@kcstar.com
Gov. Laura Kelly, shown, and Attorney General Derek Schmidt square off in a final gubernatorial debate before November’s election Wednesday, October 5, 2022, at the Doubletree Hotel in Overland Park. Emily Curiel/ecuriel@kcstar.com

By contrast, Kelly said, she had brought fiscal responsibility to the state.

Schmidt accused Kelly of overspending. On education, he said her administration had failed students by closing schools at the beginning of COVID-19. More needed to be done, he said, to involve parents in their kids’ education.

Kelly said Schmidt had little ground to speak on the issue.

“I have a hard time being lectured by you, Derek, about our public schools,” Kelly said. “Let us remember it was you in the court defending the cuts to education under the Brownback administration.”

Throughout the debate, Schmidt dismissed Kelly’s attempts to tie him to Brownback as her “unhealthy obsession with one of her predecessors.” When she asked directly if he would have vetoed Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts, Schmidt said he would have with the benefit of hindsight.

“The math has to work,” Schmidt said.

“I was never actually in the Legislature at the time that all of those decisions were made,” said Schmidt, who was first elected attorney general in 2010. “You want to focus on things that happened a long time ago with folks that are not on this stage.”

Schmidt then pushed Kelly to say whether she believed Kansans were better off under Biden.

“I’m not going to answer that because for my entire time in the (Kansas) Senate and my entire time as governor I have stayed laser-focused on Kansas,” Kelly said.

Candidates debate fentanyl, Medicaid expansion

Schmidt’s invocations of the Biden administration came most often in discussion of crime. He said fentanyl entering the U.S. through the southern border was one of the largest problems facing Kansas today and blamed the Biden administration’s border policies for the issue.

Though Kelly sent Kansas National Guard troops to the border during the Trump administration, Schmidt said she hadn’t done enough to push back on the administration and protect Kansans.

“At the end of the day we must stop the flood on the supply side,” Schmidt said. “She has taken no action and said scarcely few words on what (a secure southern border) means to her.”

Gov. Laura Kelly and Attorney General Derek Schmidt, shown, square off in a final gubernatorial debate before November’s election Wednesday, October 5, 2022, at the Doubletree Hotel in Overland Park. Emily Curiel/ecuriel@kcstar.com
Gov. Laura Kelly and Attorney General Derek Schmidt, shown, square off in a final gubernatorial debate before November’s election Wednesday, October 5, 2022, at the Doubletree Hotel in Overland Park. Emily Curiel/ecuriel@kcstar.com

Kelly said she supported border security, and believed Congress needed to pass legislation reforming the immigration system. But the issue of fentanyl overdoses, she said, was part of a broader challenge with substance abuse.

“If we really want to deal with the fentanyl issue and other substance abuse issues around our state then we need to once and for all expand Medicaid, so that people can access the services they need,” Kelly said.

Kansas is one of just 12 states that have yet to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Kelly has pushed for expansion since taking office but she has been repeatedly blocked by the Republican supermajority in the Legislature. The Legislature had voted to expand Medicaid under Brownback, but the bill was vetoed.

Schmidt said Kelly would be no more likely to convince the Legislature to expand Medicaid in her second term than she was in the first.

“It makes a good thing to talk about in the middle of an election campaign but at the end of the day the Kansas Legislature in anything like its current composition is not going to go in that direction,” Schmidt said. “I don’t think it’s about the governor. It’s about a public policy.”