Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly is being criticized for a new television ad that detractors say muddies her position on allowing transgender athletes to compete in female-designated sports.
In the ad, which began airing last Wednesday, Kelly says, “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.”
She then pivots to attack the Republican nominee, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, for his record on education funding.
Kelly, a Democrat, previously vetoed bans on transgender athletes in 2021 and 2022, citing concerns over the potential harm a ban could pose to the mental well-being of transgender students, as well as to the state’s economy if events are cancelled due to boycotts, or if businesses scuttle planned relocations or expansions in the state. In both years, the Republican majority in both chambers failed to garner the votes needed to override Kelly’s vetoes.
But Republicans are crying foul, accusing Kelly of echoing the party’s rhetoric on transgender athletes. Schmidt, for his part, has recently trumpeted Kelly’s vetoes to cast her as out of touch with a majority of Kansans and to win over moderate Republican and independent voters who chose to support Kelly over her 2018 Republican opponent, Kris Kobach.
“Laura Kelly is looking Kansans in the eye and flat out lying about her record of failing to protect girls and women from having to compete against biological men in athletics,” Joanna Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association, told The Topeka Capital-Journal. She also said that Kelly’s latest ad was a sign of “desperation” and proves that the issue has traction among swing voters.
According to recent public polling, the Kansas governor’s race is considered a toss-up, with Kelly narrowly leading Schmidt, 45-43, among likely voters. But that 2-point lead is inside the poll’s margin of error, making the race statistically tied.
The RGA is currently running at least two separate ads referencing the issue, with Schmidt appearing in one spot alongside Riley Gaines, a University of Kentucky swimmer who lost to Lia Thomas at the NCAA Division I Swimming and Diving Championships earlier this year. In that ad, Gaines highlights Kelly’s vetoes of tha transgender sports ban, which she claims ensures “fairness” in women’s athletics due to the biological advantages that athletes who were assigned male at birth enjoy over cisgender women — even after hormone therapy.
“If Laura Kelly can’t protect women, she shouldn’t be governor of Kansas,” Gaines says in the ad, which began debuting earlier this month.
Laura Fitzgerald, a spokesperson for Kelly, said 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.”
But Fitzgerald claims that the bills barring transgender athletes from competing in female-designated sports “created unnecessary new government mandates” and pointed to vetoes of similar measures by Republican governors in Indiana and Utah to justify Kelly’s vetoes.
Rather than a categorical ban on transgender athletes, Fitzgerald noted that Kelly believes decisions about transgender participation “should be made by medical professionals, school officials, families, and local jurisdictions — not politicians.”
In vetoing the 2022 bill, Kelly said that the bill “didn’t come from the experts at our schools, our athletes, or the Kansas State High School Activities Association. It came from politicians trying to score political points.”
Fitzgerald added that Schmidt “has made his campaign about divisive national issues that impact virtually no Kansas schools because he can’t defend his record of supporting [former Republican Gov.] Sam Brownback’s cuts to our schools.”
Tom Whitt, the executive director of Equality Kansas, said Kelly’s comments in the ad reflected a push by conservatives “to plant an image in people’s minds of grown men beating up little 5-year-old girls in games of kickball.”
“They’re using little LGBT kids as punching bags, the other side of this is,” Whitt told The Capital-Journal. “So if you want to talk about someone ill-advised to be doing a certain thing in their campaigning, turning little trans kids into targets is just heinous, and they shouldn’t be doing it.”
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