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Push by Kansas Legislature to defy COVID rules complicates governor's race

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Madeline Fox / Kansas News Service
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Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is facing policy choices on COVID-19 vaccine mandates that could complicate her reelection next year.

TOPEKA — Republican legislators in Kansas are treating Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s opposition to federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates as a political bluff and are forcing policy choices upon her that could complicate her already difficult bid for reelection.

The GOP-controlled Legislature forced Kelly to call a special session that begins Monday to consider two proposals for helping workers who refuse to get inoculated despite mandates announced in September by President Joe Biden.

One measure would require employers to exempt workers who say they have a religious objection to the shots without questioning them. The other would provide unemployment benefits to people who lose their jobs because they didn't get vaccinated.

The proposals appeal to Republicans' conservative base, and if Kelly vetoes them, that GOP base would remain energized ahead of next year's midterm elections. Meanwhile, more liberal voters in Kelly's base back the mandates as a way to finally end the pandemic, and she could face criticism if she signs Republican measures or brokers a compromise in an effort to keep the support of the moderate GOP and independent voters who helped her win in 2018.

“She’s walking a tightrope just like everybody is, but hers — hers is a little higher and a little more difficult,” said Joan Wagnon, a former Kansas House member, ex-Topeka mayor and former Kansas Democratic Party chair.

Kelly already faced a difficult reelection because Kansas is a Republican-leaning state in which no Democratic governor has won reelection under a Democratic president since 1968.

Also, in 2018, Kelly's general election foe was Kris Kobach, whose take-no-prisoners style alienated some GOP moderates, independent voters and some business groups. The presumed Republican nominee for 2022, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, is on track to avoid a contentious primary race.

To be sure, Republicans face political perils, too, in forcing the Legislature back into session when it wasn't set to reconvene until January. Influential business groups have strong misgivings about their proposals. Those groups fear that the unemployment measure will prove costly, raising the state taxes on businesses that help finance the benefits.

A messy special session could raise questions about how effectively the Republicans govern, and there's a risk of being associated with the anti-vaccine fringe or being accused of allowing the pandemic to linger.

Yet Republicans also have reasons to feel bullish. Several GOP leaders quickly noted that Kelly's public opposition to Biden's mandates came two days after victory in the Virginia governor’s race and a closer-than-expected loss in New Jersey’s gubernatorial contest. They chided her for not making a statement for weeks.

“I hope her words are not hollow,” said Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican and the author of the proposals before lawmakers.

Schmidt has sought political points on the right by bringing Kansas into federal lawsuits against vaccine mandates covering health care workers, employees of federal government contractors and workers for companies with 100 or more employees.

And Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy's tougher-than-expected race in New Jersey provides lessons for his party across the U.S., said Brendan Gill, a consultant and Murphy adviser. Murphy saw his margin shrink by more than 10 percentage points from 2017 — in a state that Biden carried by almost 16 percentage points.

Gill said New Jersey saw a “red surge,” with larger turnout increases in more GOP areas that more than compensated for Murphy turning out more voters.

“There are headwinds that I think we have to wrap our heads around pretty quickly,” Gill said.

Kelly's office declined to make her available for an interview or to comment about how the special session might affect her reelection bid.

Schmidt also wasn't available Friday for an interview but spokesman C.J. Grover said in an email earlier in the week that Schmidt had opposed the federal mandates since they were announced and welcomes the Legislature’s efforts.

University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said Kelly must both be attentive to her Democratic political base while keeping the support of GOP moderates. He said centrist voters want the coronavirus pandemic to end but aren't "particularly worked up at the moment.”

Wagnon and other Democrats said they understand Kelly's opposition to Biden's vaccine mandate, given the political climate. But Wagnon said progressives are disappointed by it, seeing the mandates as public health measures that will save lives and prevent serious illnesses.

Chris Reeves, a Leavenworth consultant and former Democratic National Committee member, said voters in Kelly's base “don't want anybody around them to not be vaccinated” and have been eager to get their children inoculated now that vaccines have been authorized for those aged 5 through 11.

“She came across as a little bit too political by half, you know — an effort to say, 'Well, you know, I don’t want to turn off potential voters I have in the west and the southeast and so on,” he said.