Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s successful reelection campaign in Republican-leaning Kansas wooed centrist voters with ads showing her standing in the middle of a rural road. She is starting her second term facing a skeptical, GOP-led Legislature and a new, hard-right state attorney general.
Kelly and other statewide elected officials are scheduled to take their oaths of office in a ceremony at noon Monday that includes her inaugural address. She’s often used her major public speeches to promote bipartisanship.
The ceremony also will cap a big political comeback for Kris Kobach, the new attorney general. Over two decades, he gained a national reputation by advocating for strict immigration and election laws but became a lightning rod for controversy. He lost the 2018 governor’s race to Kelly and then a GOP primary for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2020.
Both Kelly’s and Kobach’s victories last year were narrow, as Kansas voters sent decidedly mixed messages. Voters in August decisively rejected a proposed change to the state constitution that would have allowed lawmakers to ban abortion, but Republicans maintained their supermajorities in both legislative chambers — keeping conservatives firmly in charge.
The Legislature is set to convene at 2 p.m. Monday for House and Senate sessions of mostly housekeeping and swearing in new members. Kelly is scheduled to outline her legislative agenda in the annual State of the State address Wednesday evening.
“I knew from the very get-go that if I wanted to accomplish anything in public life, that I was going to need to establish relationships across the aisle,” Kelly said in a recent interview. “I will continue to work in a bipartisan manner to get things done.”
Kelly’s centrist credibility has rested on a few high-profile moves, such as breaking with President Joe Biden on COVID-19 vaccine mandates in November 2021 and signing a bill to ban “sanctuary” cities for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. Last month she banned the use of TikTok by state workers on state-issued devices, following similar action by Congress and a slew of Republican governors such as South Dakota’s Kristi Noem.
But she’s also clashed frequently with Republican lawmakers on budget issues, tax cuts and education and public health policy. She twice vetoed their proposals to ban transgender athletes from girls’ and women’s K-12 and college sports. Her proposals to expand the state’s Medicaid coverage for another 150,000 people have been dead letters for top Republicans.
“I’ve never thought she lived in the middle of the road,” state Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, said after fellow Republicans named him the next House speaker last month, adding that his chamber, “if anything, moves a little bit further to the right.”
Kobach lost a congressional race in 2004 before winning the first of two terms as Kansas secretary of state in 2010. He was the first prominent Kansas elected official to endorse Donald Trump’s bid for president in 2016 and served as vice chairman of a short-lived Trump commission on voter fraud.
His unsuccessful 2018 and 2020 races crashed his political career and left many Republicans believing that he couldn’t win a statewide race. But many GOP leaders and activists said his 2022 campaign was better organized and more focused, generating less drama or outrage.
The more combative Kobach could return: He’s promised to file lawsuits to challenge Biden administration policies. He’s already identified as potential targets a listing of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species and an expansion of waters covered by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.