Kansas’ incoming Democratic governor skipped a bipartisan meeting at the White House Thursday that gave newly elected governors of both parties a chance to present their priorities to President Donald Trump and other administration officials.
Trump campaigned aggressively for Gov-elect Laura Kelly’s Republican opponent, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, this fall. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both traveled to Kansas in an effort to defeat Kelly and elect Kobach.
During one rally, Trump described Kelly as “far left” — blasting her low NRA rating and claiming she supports giving public benefits to undocumented immigrants.
Kelly’s team said she was unable to travel to Washington because she is focused on the transition and the state budget.
“Kansas faces many challenges and the Governor-elect’s first priority is to draft a balanced budget and lay the groundwork to rebuild Kansas,” Kelly spokeswoman Ashley All said.
Kelly and every other newly elected governor was invited to attend the Thursday meeting to discuss shared state and federal priorities, including workforce development, infrastructure, support for veterans and military families and fighting the opioid crisis, according to the White House. Kelly was one of eight Democratic governors-elect to not attend.
Thirteen Republican and Democratic governors-elect attended, including J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Tony Evers of Wisconsin. Several cabinet secretaries also attended, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, both White House advisers, attended as well.
Reaction to Kelly’s no-show ran along party lines.
Kansas Republican chair Kelly Arnold criticized Kelly’s absence at the bipartisan event, noting that one of the topics of discussion was infrastructure, which is a major issue for Kansas.
“When you’re invited to the White House, you’re here to represent your state and she didn’t want to represent her state,” Arnold said. “It would have been nice to have a seat at that table and she chose not to be there.”
State Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said now is not to time for Kelly to travel to Washington for a photo op with the president, given the challenges in state government, from the prisons to the child welfare system.
That’s not to say Kelly shouldn’t visit Trump at some other time, Carmichael said.
“The governor-elect obviously has a number of very important issues on her plate and she has approximately one month until she assumes those responsibilities as governor,” Carmichael said. “Given the circumstances, a trip to Washington for a photo opportunity with President Trump would seem to be low on the list of priorities.”
State Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said he did not buy Kelly’s explanation that budgetary meetings took precedence. “I think she should have went,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s something that should’ve kept her from going. It sounds like an excuse she used,” Huebert said.
But state Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam, said Kelly declined to attend because her focus is on getting the affairs of the state in order.
“That is what she was elected to do and I think that’s perfectly fine,” Ousley said.
Kelly spent little time talking about Trump during the campaign, though Kobach often touted his ties to the president, who remains relatively popular in Kansas. Trump had a 50 percent approval rating in the state as of November, according to Morning Consult.