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G.O.P. Governor Candidate in Kansas Walks Abortion Tightrope in a Debate

As Republicans on the ballot this fall navigate treacherous terrain on abortion, Derek Schmidt, the party’s nominee for governor in Kansas, said in a debate on Wednesday that officials would “have to respect” the decision voters made in August to preserve abortion rights in the state.

Mr. Schmidt, the state’s attorney general, said that if he were to be elected over Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, he would defend the restrictions Kansas already has on the books, which include a ban on most abortions after 22 weeks. But, in contrast to Republicans in many other states and longtime conservative orthodoxy, he did not call for stricter ones.

“Well, I am pro-life,” Mr. Schmidt said when asked what changes, if any, he would make to the state’s abortion laws if elected. “I prefer a Kansas that has fewer abortions, not more. Obviously, Kansas voters spoke to a portion of this issue in August and made the decision that any state involvement in this area is going to have to satisfy exacting judicial scrutiny, and we have to respect that decision going forward.”

After those comments, which echoed remarks he made about a month ago, he turned his focus to Ms. Kelly, saying she had not identified “any limitation on abortion that she would support.”

Kansans’ resounding vote against an amendment to remove abortion protections from the state’s constitution was the first to reveal the depths of the electoral backlash to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Since then, Republican candidates have often sought to paint Democrats as out of step with public opinion by saying they support unlimited abortion policies, while dissociating themselves from the near-total bans that have taken effect in several states.

Responding to the same question asked of Mr. Schmidt, Ms. Kelly said that “an overwhelming majority of Kansans” had expressed their support for abortion rights and added, “I believe and always have believed — and have been very consistent in my position on this — that a women’s medical decisions should be made between her, her family and her doctor, and that women should have bodily autonomy equal to that of men.”

When Mr. Schmidt repeated his attack, Ms. Kelly did not engage.

“I really for 18 years have had the same position on this issue,” she said. “So I really don’t have much more to say.”

Ms. Kelly and Mr. Schmidt’s race is one of the most competitive governor’s races in the country this year. Nationally, many Democrats in close contests have seized on abortion as a campaign issue, while many Republicans have hastened away from it.

A day earlier, former Gov. Paul LePage of Maine, a Republican, stumbled in his debate on Tuesday against Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, when she challenged him on abortion.

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