TOPEKA, Kan. — Democrat Laura Kelly promised a new tone of bipartisanship after a victory in the Kansas governor’s race brought her national attention. She faces a Republican-dominated Legislature with leaders who call her proposals impractical and vow to hold her to a pledge not to raise taxes.
Kelly, a veteran state senator from Topeka, defeated Republican firebrand Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and an ally of President Donald Trump. She wooed GOP moderates and independent voters by pitching herself as a lawmaker who has worked across party lines.
The governor-elect declined to give interviews Wednesday and instead met privately with departing Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, who was narrowly defeated by Kobach in the August primary. Kelly issued a statement after the meeting that declared “a new era of cooperation.”
But the same electorate that rejected Kobach’s in-your-face conservative politics moved the Legislature further to the right. Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. said Kelly had promised voters “a free lunch,” and Senate President Susan Wagle expressed doubts Wednesday that the state can afford a boost in funding for public schools and other goals Kelly outlined during her campaign.
“You can’t have it all,” Wagle said during an interview. “It costs money.”
While Kansas is deep red in its voter registration and presidential contests, fighting between conservative and moderate Republicans regularly creates openings for Democrats. Colyer took office in January when unpopular GOP Gov. Sam Brownback stepped down to take an ambassador’s job in president Trump’s administration.
Brownback engineered deep income tax cuts in 2012-13, and huge budget problems and national infamy followed, causing voters to sour on the experiment. Bipartisan legislative majorities reversed most of the tax cuts last year and the 68-year-old Kelly, representing a GOP-leaning Senate district, was a key player as the Senate budget committee’s top Democrat.
“What happened in Kansas was a wave of common sense, a wave of bipartisanship,” Kelly told cheering supporters in her victory speech. “It was Democrats and Republicans and independents all coming together to put our state back on track.”
Kobach had promised to resume tax cutting — but also to reduce spending more aggressively than Brownback would to keep the books balanced. Still, Wagle said, Kelly was able to tag Kobach as “Brownback 2.0” — and the description resonated with many voters.
“He aligns himself too closely with the things I didn’t like about Brownback,” Kevin Graham, a 33-year-old truck driver and unaffiliated voter from the Kansas City area, said after casting his ballot for Kelly. “I really didn’t like Brownback.”
Down-ballot the story appeared different, with all 125 seats in the Kansas House on the ballot and a special election in one of the 40 state Senate districts.
Unofficial results showed a net loss of one seat in the House for the Democrats, giving Republicans an 86-39 majority. In the Republican primary in August, conservatives had a net gain of at least five seats.
State Rep. Stan Frownfelter, of Kansas City, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said conservatives may have as many as 60 solid votes — three shy of what’s needed to pass or block legislation.
“It is going to be tougher,” he said.
The Senate still has its GOP majority of 30-9, with one independent. Conservatives usually can count on 15 solid votes and pick up more Republicans, depending on the issue. Twenty-one votes are needed to pass legislation.
The new governor-elect’s goals include a further increase in spending on public schools to comply with Kansas Supreme Court mandates in an ongoing education funding lawsuit.
Kelly supported a law enacted this year — that Kobach criticized — to phase in a $548 million increase in funding over five years. The court said the state needs to boost spending further to account for inflation, perhaps another $90 million a year.
“We will no longer get by doing the minimum,” Kelly said during her victory speech. “We will truly invest in our children’s futures.”
Kelly wants Kansas to expand its Medicaid health coverage in line with the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act, something Brownback and Colyer stymied. Voters in Republican-leaning Idaho and Nebraska, approved expansions Tuesday.
“It’s long past time to expand Medicaid,” Kelly said.
Top Republican lawmakers still strongly oppose expanding Medicaid, viewing it as potentially too costly for the state, despite the federal government’s promise to cover most of the cost.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, sees some hope of influencing moderate GOP legislators by pointing to Kelly’s solid margin of victory over Kobach, about 4.5 percentage points.
“It sends a signal to people that we’re going to have to have a period of bipartisan coalition building,” he said.