Kansas primary delivers advertisements with humor, merciless attacks and clashing styles

TOPEKA — State treasurer candidate Steven Johnson opened his campaign by mocking his reputation as a nerdy-accountant-type state legislator with a commercial featuring gigantic ball-of-fire explosions and an absurd ninja preparing for combat against high taxes.

“I’m Steven Johnson,” the Republican from central Kansas told prospective voters in that ad. “My consultants said I needed some exciting ads. Well, here’s some exciting stuff I’ve done.”

He rattled off a series of legislative policy that he supported and asserted those reforms would save Kansas taxpayers billions of dollars. He closed his unusual introductory 30-second spot by pulling on a cowboy hat and vowing to protect tax dollars as state treasurer.

This ad is one of the all-time best in Kansas history, no joke. I’ve watched, viewed and archived over 1,200 ads,” said Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University. “Relatively recently, candidates have become much more conservative with a small ‘c’ and a little wary of the funny ad. But Johnson has gone all in. Because he’s the only one running a fun ad, it stands out.”

Johnson, of Assaria, is in a primary contest with state Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Republican from Parker who decided to burnish her image in a campaign commerical portraying her as a taxpayer watchdog opposed to higher income, sales and property taxes. Tyson took a more conventional approach in her ad by devoting airtime to criticizing Johnson’s legislative voting record on tax bills.

The Johnson-Tyson winner will earn the right to take on Democratic state Treasurer Lynn Rogers, who was appointed by Gov. Laura Kelly and is seeking a full four-year term in the position.

Beatty said the GOP showdown for state treasurer — and dozens of other partisan primaries and the fate of a constitutional amendment — will be decided in Tuesday’s statewide election. He said folks headed to the polls could glean important information from the avalanche of commercials, which might seem counterintuitive given how much balderdash appeared in political ads.

“Watch them and listen to them. And, you know, use your noggin and think what are they trying to express here? And, is that valid? Or is it reasonable? Or is it something that appeals to me?” Beatty said. “To be honest, you can save a little bit of time in terms of your personal research because you may not like the message, but at least that tells you something: ‘Hey, I don’t think I like them.’”

Beatty said Kansans drawn to political theater might want wade into the Kansas Institute for Politics’ archive of campaign commercials. It includes dozens from the 2022 election cycle and blasts from the past reaching all the way back to 1968, including a black-and-white ad touting the U.S. Senate campaign of Bob Dole.


Kansas City Chiefs player Harrison Butker offered support for an anti-abortion amendment to the Kansas Constitution. He pointed to alleged misinformation spread by critics of the amendment on Tuesday’s ballot. (Kansas Reflector screen capture of Do Right PAC ad from YouTube)

Dueling perspectives

The proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution on abortion rights has drawn in excess of $11 million in advertising, including sharply contrasting commercials from proponents and opponents of the measure. The ads and postcard mailings ahead have accused rivals of deception in terms of implications of the amendment designed to make it clear the state constitution didn’t protect a woman’s right to abortion.

The two major players in the TV commercial contest are amendment opponent Kansans for Constitutional Freedom and amendment proponent Value Them Both Association. Personal testimonials have been deployed by both sides to offer voters real-person perspectives on regulation of abortion in wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade and the Kansas Supreme Court’s finding that a right to abortion was woven into the state Constitution.

Jane Byrnes, sitting alone at a dining table in an ad for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, delved into the argument that a collection of Topeka politicians shouldn’t make major reproductive health decisions for Kansas women. It’s a reference to potential of the Legislature adopting more rigorous restrictions on abortion — potentially a ban — if passage of the amendment nullified the state Supreme Court decision.

The ad from Kansans for Constitutional Freedom emphasized the amendment was written by Republicans in the House and Senate who refused to include language protecting exceptions in Kansas law allowing abortions to protect the life of a pregnant woman or in instances of rape or incest.

“I won’t support putting a woman’s life at risk and that’s just what this constitutional amendment does,” Byrnes said in the ad. “It can ban any abortion in Kansas.”

Beatty said it was interesting opponents of the amendment constructed the ad to appeal to limited-government voters, including unaffiliated and conservative Kansans uneasy with expansion of the state’s role in personal decisions about health care.

He said those campaigning to approve the amendment deployed the opposite narrative and rejected talk of a ban as irresponsible fearmongering. That sentiment ignored statements by a now-fired Value Them Both coalition organizer who told Reno County Republicans the Legislature was preparing to consider a ban if the amendment passed.

Leawood Mayor Peggy Dunn, on behalf of Value Them Both Association, said in a commercial that text of the proposed amendment didn’t ban abortion or delete exemptions. Instead, she said, the amendment would preserve commonsense limits on abortion “that we already agree on.”

A second Value Them Both ad relied on a series of medical professionals to denounce the “radical” state Supreme Court, describe Kansas as a “haven” for abortion and suggest the state would mirror California on the abortion front without passage of the amendment.

In terms of the public vote on the abortion amendment, checking the “yes” box on the ballot would be a vote to approve the amendment and declare Kansans had no constitutional right to abortion. Marking the “no” box would be a vote to reject the amendment and retain the state Supreme Court’s perspective that women had a constitutional right to bodily autonomy, including abortion. A simple majority of the Kansans voting decide this constitutional question.

Lawrence attorney Chris Mann’s initial commercial in his Democratic campaign for attorney general delved into the tragic accident that ended his career as a police officer and led to his work as a Kansas lawyer. (Kansas Reflector screen capture from Chris Mann ad on YouTube)

Advertising triangle

The Republican scrum for the party’s nomination for attorney general has been especially fierce. The stable of ads included one from former federal prosecutor Tony Mattivi, an underdog in the race, who shared the arc of his career taking on Islamic terrorists, drug kingpins and Chinese spies.

“Mattivi kept America safe and made our enemies pay,” the voiceover says. “Tony Mattivi — a prosecutor, not a politician. A lifelong conservative ready to take on violent crime and defend our values against Washington liberals.”

The spotlight in the GOP race for the attorney general nomination has largely remained on Kris Kobach and Kellie Warren, who have engaged in spirited disagreement about what amounted to reality. Kobach, a former Kansas secretary of state, offered a scorched-earth ad denouncing Warren, a state senator, as inexperienced in federal court. There’s irony to that claim, because it was Kobach who was ordered by a federal judge to take a remedial course in federal procedure after he lost an election-law trial.

Beatty said Kobach’s name recognition was so high in Kansas there was no reason to waste time introduce himself to potential voters.

“For Kris Kobach it’s just, boom, bring out the howitzer and go after Kellie Warren,” Beatty said. “So, it tells us that Kobach sort of thinks he’s ahead, which the polls are showing, but there’s a lot of undecided and they may go to Kellie Warren if they think she’s okay.”

Kobach, winner of two statewide races for secretary of state, offered a full-throated ad that blamed Democrats for crime, inflation and illegal immigration before pivoting to Warren.

“Now, we find out Kellie Warren donates to the Democrats,” Kobach’s ad says. “As attorney general, how can we ever trust her to protect our values?”

Warren said Kobach was off base, because it was her husband who donated $500 to Democrat David Alvey, the mayor of the unified government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas. A campaign finance report documenting the contribution has been corrected to show she wasn’t the donor.

She’s so irritated by Kobach’s ad that she reportedly considered taking legal action to force Kobach’s campaign to remove or modify the ad.

A political action committee did Warren’s dirty work by lashing Kobach with a 15-second ad accusing him of breaking the law and wasting tax dollars.

Warren’s own commerical offered a biographical sketch of her legal career and noted her dislike of President Joe Biden and Gov. Kelly. And, near the end, it included a dig at Kobach. She referenced Kobach’s back-to-back losses in campaigns for governor in 2018 and U.S. Senate in 2020.

“Some candidates are great at creating headlines, but they never win,” Warren said, “I’ll fight and win for you.”

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