Eighteen months ahead of the 2022 election, is the Kansas governor race really a toss-up?
As the 2022 governor's race slowly begins to form, national observers have already begun to take a keen interest in Kansas' gubernatorial competition.
With last Monday's announcement, former Gov. Jeff Colyer officially became the second major Republican candidate to toss in his hat. Competing for the GOP nomination is state Attorney General Derek Schmidt. Incumbent Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, has said long before she was going to run for re-election.
Multiple organizations analyzing campaigns and elections have recently rated the state's gubernatorial race a toss-up, such as the Cook Political Report, Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball, 270towin, Inside Elections and others. Kansas is one of only a handful of the many governor's races next year to consistently get that distinction.
That toss-up rating has been a surprise to some observers in Kansas.
"I think it would be very generous to say that this is a toss-up," said state Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican who's worked in numerous political campaigns, including that of Kelly's 2018 gubernatorial opponent Kris Kobach. "I think that the Republicans could nominate a freshman representative out of the Kansas House of Representatives and beat Laura Kelly at this stage."
In the 2020 election, Kansas gave then-incumbent Donald Trump a 15-point margin over his Democratic rival President Joe Biden. Voters also handed the GOP a more conservative supermajority in the state Legislature.
That stands in stark contrast with the other toss-up gubernatorial races, most of them in battleground states like Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania, where margins in the presidential election were thin.
In fact, the Kansas governorship is the lone seat the Democratic Party has to defend in a state that went for Trump. FiveThirtyEight called Kelly "arguably the most endangered incumbent governor running in 2022."
Incumbency and the pandemic
J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at the University of Virginia's Crystal Ball, defended the toss-up rating, saying the advantage of being an incumbent is still very real.
"We're very reluctant to start off incumbents, like Laura Kelly in this case, as outright underdogs," he said. "Her approval numbers have generally been above water. And in these gubernatorial races, as long as they're not dying to get rid of you, you'll probably have at least a fighting chance to come up."
He compared Kelly to Louisiana's Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. Both won their first runs for governor after unpopular Republican governorships against flawed opponents (in Kansas' case, after former Gov. Sam Brownback and against Kobach). Yet Edwards was still able to eke out a victory in 2019 against a less problematic opponent to stay in office.
"If Kelly's approvals stay at least above water, they're going to have to be asking the Kansas voters to get rid of someone that they approved," Coleman said. "And even if the lean of the state is on your side, that can be a tricky proposition."
Claeys said the COVID-19 pandemic, which arguably has turned more voters' attention toward state government, changes the dynamics. From the mask mandate to vaccine rollout troubles to unemployment claims woes, all will cause a significant dent.
"Those kinds of things, I think, are going to weigh on voters a lot more heavily than what happened in the past election," he said.
Some of the more recent approval ratings, however, are good signs for the governor. According to a joint survey conducted by Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern universities, about 57% of Kansans approved or strongly approved of her handling of the pandemic as of last October.
Although that's a drop from her approval ratings during the pandemic's early days, Kelly has managed to buck a trend where governors of states with lower-than-average COVID-19 cases per capita often have higher-than-average approval ratings. She's maintained higher-than-average approval despite periods where Kansas recorded overwhelming numbers of virus cases.
If anything, the pandemic can play to her advantage, said political science professor Russell Arben Fox, of Friends University.
"If Kansas bounces back — and next year is almost certainly going to be better than last year — we're not going to be dealing with a pandemic, you're going to have people getting jobs back," he said. "Nearly all incumbents benefit politically from improving economic times; it doesn't matter how bad the times were before."
Nationalization of politics, historical trends
Political experts also noted a distinction between races for federal office and state office, especially in Kansas. While Kansans have a strong track record of voting red for congressional competitions, that's less so on the state level.
"If you take a look at the history of governorships over the last decades, there has been a fairly consistent pattern of moderate female Democratic governors winning re-election," Fox said.
At the same time, history can also work against Kelly. There never has been a time when a Democratic candidate has won the Kansas governorship while her party was in the White House.
And with Democrats also in control of Congress, that may spark further backlash against voting blue on the ballot in a predominantly red state.
"Having Democrats fully in charge and overreaching with things like the Green New Deal, (For The People Act), those types of things are definitely going to have a sizable impact," Claeys said.
Some argue that Kelly was lucky in the first place, running against Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state with a controversial resume. With Colyer and Schmidt carrying far less baggage, Kelly will have a more difficult time winning over moderate Republican voters who helped her in 2018.
Claeys said Kelly didn't win a majority of votes in that gubernatorial election (48%), and there may not be a third candidate to pull away votes from either side, such as what happened in 2018.
"Looking at the layout of where the votes fell last time and being privy to internal polling at the time, I think that (independent candidate) Greg Orman was positioned to accept a lot of those moderate Republican votes that would not have gone to Kelly, but also were not going to go to Kobach," Claeys said. "So you do have a group of people who will likely come home to the Republican Party in there."
Finally, Trump will be a major factor when it comes to the nationalization of this governor's race. Unlike 2018, Trump is out of office and currently more in the background without his presidential platform.
"Trump is very good about turning out low-frequency, low-propensity voters who don't necessarily vote in some of these other non-presidential elections," said Coleman, of the Crystal Ball. "If in a state like Kansas, if those voters don't show up, then the electorate would probably be more more influenced by places that tend to be higher turnout, like Johnson County, that tend to have more college-educated voters who are more tuned to the political process. So that could probably help Kelly."
It's a big reason both Colyer and Schmidt have made it a point to align themselves with Trump-aligned policies, which some hope to be enough to turn out his base.
Everything could change before 2022
Granted, many admit it's still too early to firmly predict who will win the governor's race November of next year.
The best strategy for GOP candidates is to trumpet America First, conservative ideas and stick the worst parts of the pandemic onto Kelly's handling of it, many said.
For Kelly, she'll want to portray herself as leading Kansas out of the pandemic while promoting well-polled efforts like Medicaid expansion.
But more candidates can enter the Republican primary, and Kelly's chances will heavily depend on who ultimately wins the GOP nomination. The pandemic could get significantly better or worse by the time next year rolls around. And if Trump decides to run for president again for 2024, the dynamics could majorly shift.
"This is all just looking at the tea leaves," Fox said. "There's a lot of water yet to flow under the bridge."
But one thing's for sure.
If Kelly wins, "it's probably going to be a very hard re-election," Coleman said.