Tension between social, economic issues on display as Republicans rally ahead of 2022

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kristi Noem, Republican governor of South Dakota, receives a standing ovation before giving the keynote speech at Saturday's Kansas GOP Convention in Manhattan.

MANHATTAN — In 2020, Republicans had a bumper election crop.

The party strengthened its grip on control of the state legislature, defying expectations of a Democratic blue wave washing over Kansas' amber waves of grain.

U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall beat back the financial juggernaut that was Democrat Barbara Bollier's campaign, winning handily a race which some national outlets viewed as being up for grabs. Marshall's GOP counterparts cruised to victory in three of the state's four U.S. House races.

But an independent observer, blindfolded and dropped into the state Republican Party convention Saturday would have thought the last election cycle was a disappointment in the Sunflower State, as attendees focused instead on the work they believe is left to be done in 2022.

The party's rallying cry to win back the governor's mansion next year comes on the heels of a week when Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed a half dozen bills, including Senate Bill 55, which would have banned transgender athletes in girls' and women's sports.

More:Gov. Kelly vetoes transgender athletes ban, saying it 'sends a devastating message' to Kansas kids

The ink in her veto sent a jolt of energy through Manhattan, where hundreds of GOP attendees took aim at the governor's actions.

"I’ve started saying the most dangerous weapon in the state of Kansas is an ink pen in the hand of Laura Kelly,” Attorney General Derek Schmidt, one of two top candidates to challenge Kelly in the 2022 governor's race, told attendees Saturday morning.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt discusses his gubernatorial campaign at the 2021 state Republican convention in Manhattan.

Even South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, the convention's keynote speaker, put a fine point on the key race in the Kansas' political universe.

"Your governor is a mess," she joked in her speech.

Noem defends handling of transgender athletes issue

But Kelly's flood of vetoes had a sense of irony — Noem made headlines and raised the ire of conservatives when she rejected a bill extremely similar to SB 55 last month.

Noem made brief mention of the issue in her speech, which primarily focused on her background and is likely to serve as a preview of her potential bid for the party's 2024 presidential nomination. The controversy appeared to do little to dent her popularity among the crowd, who gave her a rousing ovation.

"(Kelly's veto) is the wrong decision," Noem said. "I know some of the media have been lying to you ... I want you to know that is absolutely not true, that is a lie."

More:Eighteen months ahead of the 2022 election, is the Kansas governor race really a toss-up?

It underscores a fundamental question for Republicans ahead of the next election cycle: how to balance hitting on social issues while also messaging on economic matters in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall has introduced legislation similar to SB 55 in Congress and has been active on the issue in media appearances — although he said his primary focus was on taxes, agriculture and other issues affecting Kansans.

"I think you can walk and chew gum," he said in an interview earlier this week. "I probably spend less than 1% on issues like transgender (athletes), but I always need to do the right thing."

More:Gov. Kristi Noem won't sign transgender sports bill

But Noem's case in South Dakota underscores the challenges of maintaining that balance. Local business groups in the state came out in opposition to the bill and its potential effects on the state's economy.

Kansas GOP supporters stand up to applaud South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem following her keynote address.

And her efforts to remove college sports from the legislation came amid threats from the NCAA to remove its national championships from states which approve the laws.

Noem weighed concerns the bill was "vague and overly broad language could have significant unintended consequences." That would include a potential legal minefield, with a similar law in Idaho struck down by a federal court, pending appeal.

More:Lowering of concealed carry age requirement, tighter election laws vetoed by Gov. Kelly

Kelly also raised those worries but also went further in her veto message. She echoed fears from the LGBTQ community in Kansas that the bill would adversely impact the mental health of transgender youth, leading to a rise in bullying and youth suicide.

"This legislation sends a devastating message that Kansas is not welcoming to all children and their families, including those who are transgender — who are already at a higher risk of bullying, discrimination, and suicide," Kelly wrote.

Kansas Republicans continue to push on social issues

Nationally, only 29% of Republicans say they support a transgender athletes ban. And some legislative Republicans in Kansas opposed the bill specifically on those economic grounds, citing the potential damage a loss of NCAA events would do for cities like Wichita.

Noem's decision prompted a backlash among conservatives, both in South Dakota and across the country. She has since issued a pair of executive orders designed to address the issue, saying she will push legislators to again take up the matter in the months to come. 

Former Gov. Jeff Colyer addresses delegates.

In sharp contrast, Schmidt and former Gov. Jeff Colyer, the two confirmed candidates for the 2022 governor's race, have said they would have signed the legislation in Kansas.

More:'I'm not going to let my kid be a statistic': Kansas bill on transgender girls in holding pattern

"There are policies worth fighting for, absolutely," Colyer told reporters. "And there are principles that are there that are worth fighting for and I think that is what is behind this."

Schmidt said he didn't want to speak to Noem's intentions but noted the national desire to push back against "a newfound activism on the left."

"I think there's a lot of concern about a national movement from the left end of the political spectrum to transform America into something that is unrecognizable to many people who hold traditional values," Schmidt said in an interview. "I think that's why it's important to go ahead and confirm that those traditional values are going to be continued in Kansas."

Kelly hit on pandemic response, economy

Economic issues were not ignored by attendees and many were strident in their criticism of Kelly's handling of the pandemic and its potential economic effects going forward.

This is another issue where Noem's presence in Kansas strikes a chord. South Dakota eschewed many of the restrictions that were commonplace in other states, such as stay-at-home orders and mask mandates.

More:Kansas legislators set to re-open debate over E-Verify amid national immigration conversation

As a consequence, the state at one point had one of the highest per-capita rates of COVID-19 infection in the world and its death and case counts are among the highest in the country over the last year. 

Noem's strategy, however, earned her plaudits from conservatives and catapulted her into the national spotlight. 

"I didn't think my decisions would be unique because (other governors) knew what I knew," Noem said. "Yet they made completely different decisions and they made those decisions out of fear. They made them for political purposes. And the people in your communities paid the price."

While the next front in the pandemic is unclear, Colyer said states like Florida and Texas and even regional rivals like Missouri and Nebraska are "eating our lunch" in moving forward and ginning up economic growth.

"We have to start looking forward," he said. "Right now the rest of the country is trying to come back."

More:After Derek Chauvin verdict, Black Lives Matter Topeka calls for chokehold bans, other changes

This is set to be another point of contention after Kelly vetoed a set of tax cuts favored by conservatives as a way of bringing the state in line with federal policy championed by former President Donald Trump in 2017.

The governor contended the bill was too expensive and resembled the tax policies of former Gov. Sam Brownback — something conservatives picked apart at the convention.

In that sense, Saturday was a preview of what the next 17 months will look like in the battle for the governor's mansion and control of the state's Congressional delegation.

 "I think, if I were the Democrats, I would be very nervous about their 3rd (Congressional) District seat," said Mike Kuckelman, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. "If I were Gov. Kelly, I would be very concerned about her ability to get re-elected. These vetoes are going to cost her dearly with all voters in the state of Kansas."