TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly called Monday for leaders in Republican-leaning Kansas to follow the lead of the state's residents and “turn down the volume” on “this hate, this vitriol, this divisiveness” in politics as she started a second term with a new, hard-right state attorney general.
Kelly and other statewide elected officials took their oaths of office under banners hung on the south side of the Statehouse, one declaring “Innovation,” and the others, “Unity” and “Prosperity.” Kelly was sworn in last and stuck with a pattern in major speeches of promoting bipartisanship after narrowly winning reelection in November.
The Democratic governor told her audience that the COVID-19 pandemic showed that Kansas residents “came through for one another,” adding, “It's a part of who we've always been.”
“Time and time again, in ways big and small, Kansans choose kindness, cooperation and civility,” Kelly said in her 14-minute inaugural address. “Those in leadership positions have a particular responsibility to follow Kansans’ lead. The times demand it.”
The ceremony also capped a big political comeback for Kris Kobach, the new attorney general. Over two decades, he gained a national reputation by advocating for strict immigration and election laws but became a lightning rod for controversy. He lost the 2018 governor's race to Kelly and then a GOP primary for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2020.
“I've always been willing to dust myself off and get up off the ground and keep on fighting,” Kobach said after the inauguration ceremony ended.
Both Kelly's and Kobach's victories last year were narrow, as Kansas voters sent decidedly mixed messages. Voters in August decisively rejected a proposed change to the state constitution that would have allowed lawmakers to ban abortion, but Republicans maintained their supermajorities in both legislative chambers — keeping conservatives firmly in charge.
The Legislature convened less than an hour after Kelly's inauguration ceremoney ended for House and Senate sessions of mostly housekeeping and swearing in new members. Kelly is scheduled to outline her legislative agenda in the annual State of the State address Wednesday evening.
“We cannot let the hostility and anger that has poisoned our national politics spread here to Kansas,” Kelly said in her inaugural address. “We should all agree: Now is the time to turn down the volume. This hate, this vitriol, this divisiveness, it is not who we are as Kansans.”
Kelly's centrist credibility has rested on a few high-profile moves, such as breaking with President Joe Biden on COVID-19 vaccine mandates in November 2021 and signing a bill to ban “sanctuary” cities for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. Last month she banned the use of TikTok by state workers on state-issued devices, following similar action by Congress and a slew of Republican governors such as South Dakota's Kristi Noem.
Kelly's reelection campaign featured television ads showing her standing in the middle of a rural row, and she said in her address, “I believe the best choice is right down the middle of that road.”
“Because the middle of the road is where left and right come together, where well-intentioned people who hold different positions find common ground,” she said. “And progress is made.”
But Kelly also has clashed frequently with Republican lawmakers on budget issues, tax cuts and education and public health policy. She twice vetoed their proposals to ban transgender athletes from girls' and women's K-12 and college sports. Her proposals to expand the state's Medicaid coverage for another 150,000 people have been dead letters for top Republicans.
Still, Senate President Ty Masterson, a conservative Wichita-area Republican, expressed some guarded optimism, saying, “We'd love to meet in the middle and have those words have meeting.” Masterson noted that Kelly is now term-limited.
“People say, well, she's not accountable to voters anymore, so she can go as far left as she wants, or whatever, but the flip side is that she's also not beholden to kind of that radical base,” Masterson told reporters after the Senate's brief session.
Meanwhile, Kobach and his family marked his return to public office in what, as a former law professor, he called “a role that will suit me well.”
Kobach lost a congressional race in 2004 before winning the first of two terms as Kansas secretary of state in 2010. He was the first prominent Kansas elected official to endorse Donald Trump's bid for president in 2016 and served as vice chairman of a short-lived Trump commission on voter fraud.
His unsuccessful 2018 and 2020 races crashed his political career and left many Republicans believing that he couldn't win a statewide race. But many GOP leaders and activists said his 2022 campaign was better organized and more focused, generating less drama or outrage.
The more combative Kobach could return: He's promised to file lawsuits to challenge Biden administration policies.
He's already identified as potential targets a listing of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species and an expansion of waters covered by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
Kobach said Monday that the attorney general's office also will examine a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration rule allowing more pharmacies to dispense abortion medications. Kobach is a strong abortion opponent, while Kelly supports abortion rights.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjdhanna