KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly in a new TV ad released Wednesday responded to weeks of attacks from state Attorney General Derek Schmidt over her vetoes of bans on transgender athletes competing in girls and women’s sports.
“You may have seen my opponent’s attacks, so let me just say it: of course men should not play girls’ sports. OK, we all agree there,” Kelly says in the ad, before pivoting to attack Schmidt on education and linking him to former Gov. Sam Brownback.
But there was far less agreement about what Kelly meant. The ad quickly became a kind of Rorschach test — allowing viewers to hear what they wanted in the 30-second spot.
Republicans, who have made Kelly’s vetoes a central theme of their fight to deny the incumbent governor a second term, immediately accused her of rewriting her record. Schmidt’s campaign called the ad a lie and said “no amount of backtracking and spin from the Kelly campaign can distract from the truth.”
Democrats and the LGBTQ community had a range of reactions. Some said Kelly had effectively defused GOP attacks, while others urged the governor to reconsider her words.
Brenan Riffel, a graduate student at the University of Kansas who identifies and trans and non-binary and has spoken out on these issues, supports Kelly over Schmidt. Still, Riffel wrote in an email that trans girls and trans women aren’t men and that the transgender community was being used as a political tool.
“You either support trans kids or you don’t,” Riffel wrote. “This rhetoric is worrisome and sends a message to trans kids in the state that they aren’t cared about or are only cared about when it is politically advantageous for someone. Trans kids deserve genuine care and compassion — even when it may not be convenient.”
The governor’s race is important, Riffel wrote, but “we cannot forget whose safety and rights are on the ballot.”
Kelly has twice vetoed legislation by the Republican-controlled Legislature that would have prohibited transgender athletes from competing in girls and women’s sports, often called the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act. The bill’s supporters maintain a state law is necessary to preserve a level playing field within youth and collegiate sports, while opponents say it’s unnecessary and will increase the bullying of transgender children.
Asked how the governor’s vetoes squared with her comments in the TV ad, Kelly’s campaign said they were in line with her previous views. Campaign spokesperson Lauren Fitzgerald said in a statement the governor “has been consistent in her belief that Kansas kids deserve fairness on the playing field and a safe place to go to school.”
“However, those bills created unnecessary new government mandates, and Republican Governors — like in Indiana and Utah — vetoed similar bills in their states,” Fitzgerald said. “These decisions should be made by medical professionals, school officials, families, and local jurisdictions — not politicians.”
Fitzgerald said Schmidt had made his campaign about “divisive national issues” that affect virtually no Kansas schools.
Schmidt called Kelly’s ad false in a tweet, though he falsely wrote that Kelly had said “women’s sports” when she said “girls sports.”
“Liberal Laura Kelly, in a desperate new ad, says ‘of course’ men should not play women’s sports,” Schmidt wrote. “But she vetoed Fairness in Women’s Sports TWICE.”
Tom Witt, director of Equality Kansas, the state’s leading LGBT rights group, said Kelly is trying to address scare tactic language deployed by far-right Republicans to “beat up on transgender children.”
“That language, men playing against girls, that is far-right extremist language meant to put an image in people’s mind of big, grown hairy men beating up on 5-year-olds playing kickball,” Witt said. “And of course, no one agrees with that because that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is that trans kids go to school and they play sports with their classmates.”
While transgender athletes can compete in middle school, high school and collegiate sports in Kansas, they play at their own age or grade level. With the exception of athletes who are in high school and have turned 18, adults are not competing against minors – whether transgender or not.
Kansas state Rep. Heather Meyer, an Overland Park Democrat, argued the Republican focus on the issue was transphobic. Kelly and lawmakers who voted against the bans “already know that men and boys don’t belong on the same field as women and girls,” Meyer said in an email.
“But we also know that transgender women are women & transgender men are men, so there’s no opportunity for men/boys to play sports with women/girls as it is,” Meyer wrote.
Republicans have been steadily ramping up the pressure on Kelly over her past vetoes of bans on transgender athletes in girls and women’s sports in recent weeks. In early September, Schmidt held a news conference in Johnson County to attack the governor over her past vetoes. Kelly won nearly 55% of the vote in 2018 in Johnson County, the state’s most populous.
The news conference featured Riley Gaines, a former University of Kentucky swimmer who has criticized the NCAA’s decision to allow Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer for the University of Pennsylvania, to compete in Division I women’s swimming events. Gaines then appeared in a Republican Governors Association Ad saying that “if Laura Kelly can’t protect women, she shouldn’t be governor of Kansas.”
Republicans’ focus on the issue comes amid a national effort to pass bans, with measures introduced in dozens of states. In Kansas, Geary County School District said in August it will pay $95,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a former middle school teacher who said she was disciplined for refusing to use a student’s preferred pronouns.
Kelly vetoed one ban in April. After that, the Republican-controlled Kansas House and Senate attempted to override the veto. The Senate voted to override but the vote in the House was 81-41, three short of the needed two-thirds supermajority.
“Sudden election year conversions are typical in politics, but this claim by the governor in her ad is completely brazen. Of course, it’s complete deceit,” Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said in a statement.
Kelly and Schmidt are locked in a dead heat with less than two months to go until Election Day. A poll from Emerson College Polling and The Hill released on Wednesday showed Kelly with a slight lead, 45% to 43%, that’s within the poll’s 3% margin of error.
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, said Kelly’s ad follows a cardinal rule of campaigning by not letting an opponent own a particular issue.
Beatty homed in on Kelly’s use of the phrase “of course” in the ad, saying the governor is arguing that she isn’t a radical on the issue – an answer that fits into her larger attempt to campaign as a “middle of the road” leader.
“The strategy is she’s not going to talk about this incredibly complicated issue,” Beatty said. “Instead, she’s signaling she’s not a radical on this.”