Former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum backs Kelly over former aide Schmidt in KS governor race

Travis Heying/file photo The Wichita Eagle

Former Republican Sen. Nancy Kassebaum is backing Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s reelection bid over Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, Kassebaum’s former staffer.

Kassebaum, a moderate Republican who represented Kansas from 1978 to 1997, was known for bucking party leadership during tenure. She has increasingly supported Democratic candidates in recent years. She backed Kelly in 2018 and Democratic Senate candidate Barbara Bollier in 2020.

“Governor Laura Kelly has shown time and again she is willing to work with both sides of the aisle for solutions to real problems,” Kassebaum said in a statement. “She continues to rise above partisan politics to do what is right for Kansas — she has the leadership qualities needed to continue leading the state. I’m proud to join her team to build a better future for Kansas.”

In 2018, Kassebaum was one of many Republicans who picked Kelly over firebrand Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Four years later, she’s choosing the Democrat over Schmidt, who worked as her legislative assistant early in his career.

Schmidt’s campaign manager, C.J. Grover, touted other prominent Kansas Republicans who had endorsed Schmidt, including former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who served alongside Kassebaum and endorsed Schmidt before he passed away last year.

“Derek will always be grateful to Nancy for giving him an early opportunity for public service as a junior member of her staff 30 years ago. He admires her personally, despite their political differences, but has been disappointed with the fact that she has not supported a Republican nominee for Governor of Kansas during this century,” Grover said.

“This race is about the future, not the past. Kansans know we can do so much better than Laura Kelly.”

Schmidt has been complimentary of Kassebaum’s work in the Senate in the past. In 2019, when he was considering a Senate run, he pointed to Kassebaum as a role model.

“Both parties’ caucuses have become a bit hardened and there’s a price exacted whenever somebody crosses party lines… It really makes it hard for the system to work,” Schmidt told The Star at the time.

“I think about that a lot. I think about Nancy’s example. She was terrific, in my view at least, in always being focused on why she was here… She never was very interested in the game. I’m not sure where that fits now in the roster.”

Kassebaum’s endorsement follows a similar announcement from Republican Gov. Bill Graves, in whose administration Schmidt had served.