Laura Kelly, the 68-year-old state senator from Topeka, ran as a moderate, relied on her reputation in the Kansas Legislature as someone willing to find compromise, presented her opponent as more of the same after eight tumultuous years in Kansas politics, and won the governor’s race on Tuesday. So how did she get here, and what’s next for the governor elect and the State of Kansas?
Kelly called for a change of tone in Kansas Tuesday night, and a return to times past when Democratic governors formed coalitions by gathering together support from their own party ranks as well as from Republicans willing to lean toward the center. She has pledged to restore school spending and move past the tax and service cutting ways of the Brownback era. An era which she and Kansas voters effectively closed the door on Tuesday night.
Her campaign focused relentlessly on the Brownback Administration. Seemingly running against the ex-governor as much as she did against her actual opponent, Kris Kobach. Claiming that Kobach would return the state to Brownback era policies which eroded tax revenues and triggered sweeping cuts. Her strategy proved effective.
Kelly’s focus in her victory speech Tuesday night was more conciliatory, seeming to acknowledge that her prospects for success as goveror will rely on her administration’s ability to work toward common ground with Republican majorities in both the state house and senate.
Kris Kobach said his loss resulted from political forces pushing against Republicans in the midterm election and due to money. On Tuesday night, he said that Kelly simply had too much money, and he couldn’t keep up in the advertising aspects of the campaign. He claimed in his concession speech that Kelly’s campaign outspent his by $2.5 million dollars. Much of Kobach’s campaign was financed by running mate Wink Hartman whereas Kelly relied more on smaller donors.
Independent Greg Orman turned out to be a non-factor in the race as some suspected coming down the stretch of the campaign. Kelly supporters had pressured him to drop out, fearing he would capture the votes of moderate Republicans who would otherwise vote for a Democrat. Orman received about 6 percent of the vote. Kobach would have needed nearly all of those votes to overtake Kelly in the end.
Her election revives the prospect that Kansas could expand Medicaid coverage. After moderates made headway in the 2016 election, the Kansas Legislature voted for the expansion last year, but they failed to overcome a veto by Gov. Sam Brownback.
Kelly’s victory will likely mean an end to tax cuts, and the possibility of tax increases to pay for greater state aid to school districts and social programs. She also plans to attempt to implement regulations to legalize medical marijuana. She also announced plans on Thursday to reinstate an executive order rescinded by former Gov. Sam Brownback put in place originally by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to forbid LGBT status as a determining factor in state hiring and employment decisions.
In 2014, about 870,000 people voted in the governor’s race when Brownback beat Democrat Paul Davis by about 3.5 percentage points. This year, more than 1 million Kansans voted in the governor’s race. Kelly received about 48 percent of the vote to Kobach’s 43 percent. Kelly has not yet named any cabinet members, but she vowed to put in place what she describes as a “diverse, dynamic and skilled” administration when she officially takes office in mid-January.