Without competitive primaries, Kelly and Schmidt sidestep impact of abortion amendment

·5 min read

In five weeks, Kansans will vote on whether to retain abortion rights in the state constitution, a vote that has increased in significance and stakes following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

However, candidates in Kansas’ other most high-profile midterm election, the race for governor, have been wary to discuss the ramifications of the upcoming vote on a constitutional amendment to strike Kansas’ state-level protections for abortion.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has largely avoided talking directly about the amendment, while Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt won’t answer questions about his policy preferences if the amendment passes.

Abortion is the largest issue on the ballot for Kansans in the August primary. But without competitive primaries Kansas’ leading candidates for governor, Kelly and Schmidt, have been able to hedge their messaging on the issue while waiting for the results of the amendment referendum.

Kelly’s statement after the U.S. Supreme Court decision stood in stark contrast to Democrats across the state Friday. Abortion rights advocates and other elected Democrats urged “no” votes and activism on the Aug. 2 constitutional amendment. Kelly didn’t mention the vote once.

Her statement reaffirmed belief that abortion decisions should between a woman and her doctor.

“I’ll continue to oppose all regressive legislation that interferes with individual freedoms or threatens the strides we’ve made in recent years making Kansas a constructive place to do business,” the statement said.

Her campaign quote-tweeted her statement with a link to her campaign fundraising website.

Meanwhile, Kelly’s likely November GOP opponent proudly proclaimed his support for the amendment, and the decision, but he sidestepped discussion of what abortion policies he would pursue or reject as governor.

Schmidt, who has served as state attorney general for 12 years, said he wanted to see fewer abortions in Kansas, but he didn’t clearly explain how the state would get there.

Michael Poppa, a lobbyist for the Mainstream Coalition which has campaigned against the amendment, said he wished Kelly would be more vocal but recognized the the governor knew her voters and was typically measured in her messaging.

“I do think a pro reproductive rights stance would really resonate with some that are in the mainstream that are moderate Republicans,” Poppa said.

Currently the Kansas constitution protects a right to an abortion. August’s vote would remove that right, opening the door for lawmakers to impose new restrictions, or a ban, on the procedure.

If the referendum fails neither Schmidt or Kelly would have much role in crafting abortion policy in the state. If it passes the November election will take on a new significance for abortion rights as the partisan makeup of the Legislature, and veto power of the governor, could determine whether abortion remains legal in Kansas.

Kelly stayed largely silent on the issue in the lead up to the vote. She’s made her position on abortion clear over the years and she opposed the amendment when it passed in the Legislature.

“Governor Kelly has made it clear that a woman’s reproductive healthcare decisions should be between her and her physician. She’ll continue to oppose all regressive legislation that interferes with individual freedoms or threatens the strides we’ve made in recent years making Kansas a constructive place to do business. That includes opposing efforts to change the state constitution this August,” Kelly’s campaign spokeswoman said in an email.

Kelly told the Topeka Capital-Journal last month she would spend the summer focused on her campaign rather than the amendment.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, called Kelly’s avoidance of the abortion issue a strategy to ignore the rising number of abortions that had occurred during her tenure.

“Laura Kelly understands that unlimited abortion and anti-amendment efforts against Value Them Both are out of step with Kansas values. Kelly’s values are more in line with Elizabeth Warren and the Biden White House, who are also opposing the amendment,” Kansans for Life spokeswoman Danielle Underwood said in a statement.

But ahead of a tough political fight Kelly’s messaging fits with her broader strategy to appeal to the voters in the middle. Jan Kessinger, a moderate Republican who lost his seat in the Kansas House after voting against the amendment in 2020, said her time was better spent on issues like business development and eliminating the food sales tax.

“It’s kind of a political fool’s gold where if you stake your political career on abortion when there are so many political issues that impact each and every Kansan,” Kessinger said.

Schmidt, on the other hand, went on conservative talk radio in Wichita and Kansas City early this week to talk about the overturning of Roe. He applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, but he’s been able to use the constitutional amendment as a way to avoid answering questions about his own policy preferences as Kansas’ potentially next governor.

“It’s going to invite in a period with lots of vigorous debate by people on lots of sides of this question,” Schmidt told Pete Mundo on KCMO Talk Radio Monday.

When asked whether Schmidt would support further restrictions on abortion if he was elected, Schmidt’s campaign manager C.J. Grover pointed to his Friday statement that “on Aug. 2nd the people will speak and their voice will show the way forward.”

Rather than clarify Schmidt’s stance, Grover attacked Kelly for opposing “all abortion restrictions at any stage of a pregnancy.”

Schmidt’s messaging follows the same strategy legislative Republicans and activists advocating for the amendment have taken — talk about protecting existing anti-abortion laws but don’t mention future restrictions or bans.

“I think he’s purposely being vague,” state Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, said. “They probably don’t want to let people know where he really stands. I think we’re probably in a situation where he’s trying to appear somewhat moderate when he really isn’t.”

Kessinger, the moderate Republican, predicted that if the amendment passed and Schmidt became governor abortion would be banned in Kansas. But he said it was no surprise that Schmidt would act in line with the party for now.

“In Kansas it’s very heavily Republican and what he is doing is sticking to the Republican script,” Kessinger said.

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