Gov. Laura Kelly has determinedly portrayed herself as a moderate Democrat in her tight reelection bid in deep-red Kansas, but a late-breaking flap over state support for drag shows is threatening to drown out her campaign messaging.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt, also Ms. Kelly’s Republican opponent in November, accused the Kelly administration of “lending the state’s good name” to promote drag performances.
Two events open to “all ages” listed among their supporters the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, a division of the state Department of Commerce.
“Gov. Kelly has been telling Kansas for months now that she’s in the middle of the road. Well, supporting and funding drag shows for kids of all ages is not middle of the road,” Mr. Schmidt said at a Monday press conference.
Department spokesperson Patrick Lowry denied that the commission was sponsoring the shows after Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper broke the story. He called such claims “blatantly wrong.”
Ms. Kelly blasted her Republican rival.
“If anybody needs to apologize, it is Derek Schmidt for deceiving the public,” Ms. Kelly told The Kansas City Star.
Republicans had no intention of dropping the matter. They emphasized Tuesday that at least two of the host organizations for the shows had received state grants, pumping oxygen into the story ahead of one of the tightest gubernatorial contests in the nation.
The kerfuffle on a hot-button social issue could hardly come at a worse time for Democrats fighting to hang on to power in Kansas, one of a handful of states where party control of the governor’s office could flip next month.
Democrats are favored to take over for Republican governors in Massachusetts and Maryland. The Cook Political Report rated races in another five states as toss-ups: Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, Oregon and Wisconsin. Democrats now head all except Arizona.
Ms. Kelly led by 47% to 45% in the Emerson College poll last month. Her ability to attract crossover voters in a conservative state depends in large part on her ability to project a centrist image, as she does in a campaign ad that shows her standing in the middle of a two-lane highway.
“Like most Kansans, I’m not too far right or too far left. I’ve always been pretty middle-of-the-road, and that’s how I’ve governed: Getting Republicans and Democrats to meet in the middle,” Ms. Kelly says in the ad.
Threatening to upend that message is the gender identity issue.
Ms. Kelly twice vetoed bills that would bar male-born athletes from female sports. Last month, she landed in a campaign kerfuffle for an ad in which she says “of course men should not play girls’ sports.”
Her campaign later explained that she was referring to adult men playing against underage female athletes. Republicans accused her of trying to obscure her record.
The latest issue erupted after a Saturday show called the “Dada Ball,” featuring performances by five “drag artists,” at the Chainlink Gallery Place in Wichita. The venue lists among its supporters the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission.
“The Chainlink Gallery Place is facilitated by Harvester Arts, in partnership with Bokeh Development, the Wichita Community Foundation and Lifeboat Creative and with support from the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission and Knight Foundation,” the venue says on its website.
Billed as a “free, all-ages evening of music, fashion, drag & dancing,” the event included suggestively clad dancers in drag performing for adults and children, as shown in photos posted Monday by the Daily Mail.
Republican Governors Association spokesperson Joanna Rodriguez said that for the department to “sponsor a sexually explicit all-age drag show for minors is outrageous.”
Harvester Arts Executive Director Kristin Beal issued a response saying the group had received several grants from the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, but “neither the KDC or KCAIC sponsored or funded” the “Dada Ball.”
“Our funding is primarily program based and Chainlink Gallery Place is a new program that is funded entirely through the Knight Foundation and private donors,” she said. She added that Harvester Arts has no full-time staff.
Meanwhile, organizers of a second drag show, the “Mall Monster Mash” in Wichita this Friday, said they removed the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission logo from their advertising.
“The KCAIC is not sponsoring this event,” OpenStudios said in a statement. “Their logo had been placed on a poster because they have given Fisch Bowl Inc., a 501(c)3 art organization, a grant to help us cover some of the administrative and utility expenses associated with our OpenStudios spaces at Towne West.”
OpenStudios, which offers free studio space to artists, added that “at the request of the KCAIC (standard practice in granting arrangements), I had asked all of our artists to put the KCAIC logo on all their printed material and social media posts, which is why the logo appeared on the promotional material created specifically for this event.”
“However, the KCAIC has no direct role in this event, nor is any of the money they have granted our organization being spent on this event,” the statement said.
The “Mall Monster Mash,” which is slated to feature nine drag performers, is also billed for “all ages,” but OpenStudios said that “if someone does not wish to experience this event, they may certainly choose not to attend and/or require the same of their children.”
Mr. Lowry denied that either the department or the commission was sponsoring the events.
“Neither the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission (KCAIC) nor the Kansas Department of Commerce sponsored the DADA Ball event that took place October 22 or the Mall Monster Mash event scheduled for October 28,” Mr. Lowry told KWCH-DT.
Shannon Pahls, Kansas Republican Party executive director, said the department “admitted they provided support for the operating costs for at least two venues hosting an ‘all-ages’ drag show.”
“The department’s own policy was that organizers note them as a sponsor for all events using these spaces,” she said. “At best, Laura Kelly is guilty of an unacceptable lack of oversight, and at worst, she was hoping no one noticed that government funds were used to support radicals exposing children to sexually explicit performances and is only reversing course because she was caught.”
Early voting for the Nov. 8 election began in Kansas on Oct. 19, according to the secretary of state’s office.