TOPEKA, Kan. -- Conservative Republicans in Kansas failed Monday to overturn the Democratic governor's veto of a proposed ban on transgender athletes in girls' and women's sports, unable to convert successes in other states or Caitlyn Jenner's support into enough momentum.
The state Senate voted 26-14 to override Gov. Laura Kelly's veto, leaving supporters a single vote short of the necessary two-thirds majority. The senators' decision blocked a vote in the House.
Kansas became the second state within two weeks, after North Dakota, where a legislature with Republican supermajorities failed to override a governor's veto of such a measure. Lawmakers in more than 20 states have considered such bans, and they've become law in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia after Idaho enacted one last year. Florida lawmakers recently approved such a measure, and South Dakota's governor imposed a policy by executive order.
The vote in Kansas came two days after Jenner, the former Olympic decathlon champion and reality television figure who came out as a transgender woman in 2015, said she opposes transgender athletes in girls' and women's sports as a "question of fairness." Kansas conservatives seized upon her comments to a TMZ reporter in arguing that they were trying to protect fair competition and opportunities for female athletes.
"No one can accuse her of being anti-trans or interested in causing suicides, or whatever accusation they had of me for that," Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, told reporters before the vote.
Kelly had called the proposed ban "regressive," said it would send a message that Kansas was not a welcoming place and predicted it would hurt the state's attempts to recruit businesses. LGBTQ-rights advocates said it would increase bullying of already vulnerable children.
"We're not going to legislate discrimination here," said state Rep. Stephanie Byers, a Wichita Democrat and the state's first transgender lawmaker. "It's going to be tough thing to fight, but we're always going to do it."
Many transgender-rights advocates have criticized Jenner, saying she has failed to convince them that she is a major asset to their cause. Byers suggested that Jenner is trying get attention for herself.
The proposed ban is likely to be an issue in the 2022 governor's race, when Kelly seeks a second term. The top two Republican candidates, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and former Gov. Jeff Colyer, have said they would have signed the measure.
Kelly ran as a centrist in 2018 against polarizing conservative Kris Kobach, a former Kansas secretary of state nationally known for advocating restrictive immigration policies and tough voter identification laws. Republicans already have started trying to paint Kelly as a liberal and see her veto of the measure on transgender athletes as evidence of that.
"It shows her true, far-left leanings," said state Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican, a former college basketball player and the bill's main sponsor. "I think if we make it about what it truly is -- it's protecting those opportunities for girls -- that those are Kansas values and that at the end of the day, it will hurt the governor politically."
Supporters of such proposals across the U.S. generally have been unable to cite local examples of problems. The association overseeing extracurricular activities in Kansas K-12 schools says it has been notified of only five active transgender participants in extracurricular activities, and there is no known case of a transgender athlete having won a Kansas championship.
"After a long reputation of being anti-LGBT, this state is making progress on rights for LGBT people, and it's making progress on rights for transgender people," said Tom Witt, executive director of the LGBTQ-rights group Equality Kansas, after shedding tears of relief over the vote.
The decisive factor might have been a concern that sports bodies such as the NCAA would avoid scheduling tournament games in Kansas. Sen. David Haley of Kansas City, the only Democrat who was wavering, cited that issue to reporters in explaining his no vote.
Haley previously abstained on the measure, but the Senate forced him to vote Monday. He wrestled with his decision, hashing over both sides' arguments in an extraordinary six-minute speech.
"David Haley can't win in this discussion," he told his colleagues.