Kansas GOP candidate Derek Schmidt plays the race card
Derek Schmidt
I don’t believe Attorney General Derek Schmidt is racist.

But he’s staking his campaign for governor on the belief that Kansans are.

Twice within recent days, the Republican’s lagging campaign has deployed racially fraught ads and rhetoric, all with the apparent goal of scaring voters. It has distorted good work by honorable Kansans and played on despicable smears. Schmidt should renounce these attacks immediately and pledge to represent everyone in the state, no matter their skin color or background.

Just last week, Kansas Reflector’s Tim Carpenter reported that the campaign released ads attacking incumbent Gov. Laura Kelly’s Commission on Racial Equality and Justice.

“The commercials seek to portray Schmidt as an unblinking supporter of law enforcement, while questioning Kelly’s commitment to public safety,” Carpenter wrote. “Specifically, the attorney general’s ads one month ahead of the Nov. 8 election asserted the Democratic governor ‘called Kansas cops racist’ and ‘appointed a woke commission that pushed for anti-policing laws.’ ”

Never mind that Schmidt himself told the commission that: “Obviously, it does exist,” when talking about racism in the state’s law enforcement agencies. Whoops.

Never mind that the commission itself included the Wichita police chief, Wyandotte County district attorney and a multitude of other accomplished Kansans. Never mind that you can read all about their carefully considered recommendations in a series of Kansas Reflector columns.

Schmidt’s campaign is playing the race card. It believes white Kansans will be scared of Black people. It believes that repeating buzzwords about “wokeness” and “backing the blue” will gain the candidate power.

The Governor’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice, which met every other week, was charged with making recommendations to the governor, Legislature and local governments. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

But Schmidt’s folks haven’t just targeted those working for racial justice.

Note this remarkable word salad from the candidate on the topic of fentanyl, delivered on the first stop of a GOP bus tour Oct. 5.

“Most of that stuff is manufactured somewhere in China by a branch of the Chinese Communist Party,” Schmidt said, according to Kansas Reflector reporter Rachel Mipro. “It is shipped to Mexico, where it’s mixed up and put together by the drug cartels. It is smuggled over the border, and it is distributed in our communities. We cannot stop it without securing the border. And my friends, not only has Joe Biden failed on that, Laura Kelly hasn’t even tried.”

The candidate has added some other targets for Kansans’ fear and disdain. If you’re not afraid enough of Black people, then what about Chinese people? How about brown people? And drugs are terrifying too, right?

The Kansas GOP has tried this before, and successfully.

Back in 2014, incumbent GOP Gov. Sam Brownback was facing defeat at the hands of Democrat Paul Davis. Brownback’s campaign decided to tie Davis to a decision by the Kansas Supreme Court that overturned the death sentences for two convicted murderers.

Yes, Jonathan and Reginald Carr just happened to be Black. As journalist Barbara Shelly wrote for the Pitch in 2016, the subsequent advertising barrage was brutal.

“ ‘Paul Davis, endangering the safety of your family,’ a mailer from the Kansas Republican Party blared. It included graphic details of the murders in Wichita and accused Davis of ‘voting to protect judges who are handing down such dangerous rulings.’ ”

GOP pollster Pat McFerron sent a memo to Brownback’s campaign manager at the time, writing that: “Our polling shows that, when voters are informed of Davis’ relationship with the Supreme Court justices and reminded of that court’s decision to overthrow the conviction and sentencing of the Carr brothers, they break against Davis by a better than 5 to 1 ratio.”

According to Shelly, he claimed a matching TV ad “will cause great consternation and gnashing of teeth in the Davis camp.”

Nationally, the GOP has taken the same approach this election cycle. Politico reports the Democrats across the country have been hammered on “public safety” issues, which is handy distraction from abortion bans and Donald Trump’s continuing malign influence.

– Clay Wirestone

Brownback managed to squeak out a win against Davis, riding that victory to becoming the second least-popular governor in the United States. More importantly than that, the GOP saw that racially tinged ads worked. When all else was failing, they could break the glass and exploit good old-fashioned discrimination.

Nationally, the GOP has taken the same approach this election cycle. Politico reports the Democrats across the country have been hammered on “public safety” issues, which is handy distraction from abortion bans and Donald Trump’s continuing malign influence.

Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, speaking in Nevada over the weekend, went even further. He accused Democrats outright of being “pro-crime” and said “they want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”

He’s not quite using slurs in public, but he’s close.

Schmidt and his campaign owe Kansas and its voters a more thoughtful and humane campaign than we’re seeing across the country. They owe us a more thoughtful and humane campaign than they themselves have run so far.

Like his campaign’s attacks on transgender children, Schmidt’s rhetoric here goes beyond expediency. It risks real-world consequences for those targeted. It identifies an other — racial and ethnic minorities, those of different sexual orientation or gender expression — and paints that other as a dire threat.

We may disagree with one another over policy and ideology. But the real threat this campaign season comes from encouraging the darker parts of one another’s psyches.

Schmidt still has time to disinfect his campaign and appeal to the better angels of our nature. Does he want to?

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.