Democrats can’t figure out rural voters. Does Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly have answers?

Murphy nodded to the slate of 2023 gubernatorial elections in red-leaning rural states: “Her input is invaluable.”

Over the past decade — and accelerating since former President Donald Trump’s win in 2016 — rural voters have been racing away from the Democratic Party, which has increasingly focused on winning urban and suburban voters. Despite years of warnings from operatives focused on luring back rural voters, candidates continue to complain about a lack of investment and seemingly no bottom to their troubles.

Part of the problem, Kelly said, is Democrats getting dragged into constant culture war fights like transgender rights or abortion policy. She still cares about these issues, she said, but avoids them on the stump, even when Republicans sought to bog her down in them.

“When you go out to rural Kansas, they are not talking about all of the divisive social issues,” Kelly said. “What’s on their mind is ‘are you going to fund my schools?’ Or ‘are you going to build my roads, fix my roads?’”

The most frequently aired GOP ad during the midterms was one that said Kelly “opposed common sense efforts to ban men from competing against girls in high school sports.” Kelly has vetoed anti-LGBTQ bills, both before and after the 2022 election, and she supports abortion rights.

But she didn’t make any of that central to her campaign. Recalling her time as a state legislator, she said she might “vote in a way that might spark some flames, but I would never be throwing them.”

In a break from many other Democrats last year, Kelly did not emphasize abortion rights during her campaign — despite the fact that voters in Kansas rejected a ballot initiative pushed by anti-abortion groups in the summer of 2022, months before Kelly was on the ballot.

“Kansans don’t centralize it,” she said of abortion. She added that while Kansans “came out in full force” to reject the ballot initiative, for her election she “needed to stay on track, and discuss or have conversations about the issues that I knew really mattered the most to voters, particularly my voters in the rural areas.”

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