In Tight Kansas Race, Governor Concedes to Trump-Backed Opponent
By Bryan Lowry, Hunter Woodall, Jonathan Shorman, Steve Vockrodt And Allison Kite
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has captured the Republican nomination for governor after edging out Gov. Jeff Colyer in the tightest primary fight in Kansas history.
Colyer, a plastic surgeon from Overland Park, announced his concession Tuesday night after he failed to narrow the gap with Kobach when provisional ballots in Johnson County were tallied.
Kobach pointed to an endorsement tweet from President Donald Trump the day before the election as playing a key role in helping him power past Colyer.
"I think it was absolutely crucial. There's no question that the election day voting went much more strongly for me as compared to the advance voting," Kobach said during an event in Overland Park hours before Colyer's concession.
Kobach led Colyer by 345 votes as of Tuesday night, a week after Election Day, with 85 of the state's 105 counties having processed their provisional ballots.
Johnson County, the governor's home county, dealt the final blow when Kobach outperformed Colyer on provisional ballots by 24 votes. Colyer won the county overall by 6 percentage points.
"This election is probably the closest in America. But the numbers are just not there unless we were to go to extraordinary measures," Colyer said during an emotional news conference Tuesday night.
He promised not to seek a recount or challenge the race's results in court.
"Kansas is too important, the people of Kansas are too important, our children are too important," he said.
Kobach called Colyer "a worthy opponent" in a statement Tuesday night. In a phone call, he stressed his shared values with Colyer.
"The issues that unite us are far greater than the campaign trivialities that might have separated us at times," Kobach said. "We're both 100 percent pro-life, pro-gun, pro-taxpayer, and there's just too much at stake for the Republican party to be divided."
Colyer was elevated to the office of governor in January after Trump tapped Gov. Sam Brownback for an ambassadorship.
Kansas House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, praised Colyer's leadership during his short tenure as governor and said the party would unify behind Kobach.
"We have a strong conservative nominee who has earned the endorsement of our president, who carried this state by 20 points. Kansas Republicans have much to be optimistic about," Ryckman said.
Help from Trump
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University, saw Kobach's strong performance on provisional ballots across the state as a sign of Trump's influence.
Provisional ballots, Beatty said, are usually cast by people who decide to vote at the last minute.
"Provisional voters almost by definition, they're not going to be well-organized," he said. "And I do think it's possible the Trump endorsement helped garner him a few hundred extra votes."
Trump's decision to endorse Kobach had rankled national GOP strategists, sparking fears that it'll make it more difficult for the party to hold onto the governor's mansion and its congressional seats.
"It's fair to say the consensus view is that we're gonna lose that state and two House races to boot if he's the (nominee)," said one Republican strategist close to Republican Governors Association donors, referring to Kobach.
The association put out a statement Tuesday night congratulating Kobach and calling him "the best candidate to keep Kansas moving forward."
No other official in Kansas has more fully embraced Trump's agenda than Kobach. He has also helped shaped that agenda.
The president had not reached out to Kobach in the hour after Colyer's concession, but Kobach said "we speak frequently, so I expect I'll be talking to him fairly soon."
Kobach was the only statewide official to endorse Trump ahead of the 2016 Kansas Republican caucus and helped add Trump's promised border wall to the national Republican Party platform.
Kobach met with Trump in the weeks after the 2016 election and discussed a proposal to change the National Voter Registration Act. He went on to serve as vice chair of the president's now-disbanded commission on voter fraud.
He also has claimed to have played a role in the administration's decisions to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census and to restrict the entry into the United State from several Muslim majority countries.
Several of these policy moves have caused controversy for Trump -- and for Kobach.
Beatty said that Kobach's nomination will ensure that Trump will remain a focus of the election in Kansas.
"It certainly would make sense given Kobach's career to continue what he's been doing, which is never back down from his close alliance with Donald Trump," Beatty said.
"I expect that his strategy will be to embrace the criticism, embrace the controversy and embrace Donald Trump to get his voters out in a three-way race to win. He doesn't need 50 percent, just like in the primary he doesn't need 50 percent."
Kobach will face Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka, who captured her party's nomination with 52 percent of the vote in a five-way race, and independent Greg Orman, provided that Kobach's office certifies the signatures collected by the Johnson County businessman's campaign.
Kansas law requires independent candidates for governor to collect 5,000 signatures for a spot on the ballot. Last week Orman's campaign delivered 10,000 to Kobach's office, where they are being reviewed.
Kobach maintained that what he ran on in the primary will carry over to the general.
"I've said from the beginning that I tell voters who I am and what I stand for," Kobach said. "And I don't change my tune either from primary to general or from general to being in office. I think voters appreciate that about me."
Patrick Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said he sees the race leaning for Kobach because Orman will draw votes from Kelly.
"It's pretty clear that Kobach was perhaps not as strong of a nominee as Colyer," Miller said. "To an extent, that doesn't matter because you have Orman acting as a spoiler in the race. He casts himself as a centrist but he is a liberal."
A poll by Remington Research Group published in July indicated that a Kelly-Orman-Kobach race would put Kelly and Kobach in a statistical tie -- 36 percent for Kelly and 35 percent for Kobach. Orman fetched 12 percent of the vote in the poll, leaving 17 percent undecided.
"Given how Republican Kansas is, splitting the center-to-left is not something you can afford to do," Miller said.
Will Colyer voters come home for Kobach in the general election after a bitter primary and narrow loss?
"A lot of people thought Republicans would not come home for Donald Trump and they did," Miller said. "If they're going to come home for Trump, they are going to come home for Kobach."
Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican, said Kobach's victory is in keeping with success that conservative candidates in Kansas have had so far this year -- Whitmer himself excluded, as he lost his primary challenge to a more moderate candidate.
"I think (Kobach) has a great chance. "... I think it stacks up well," Whitmer said. "I think he's got just as good a shot as Jeff did."
Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, noted that Trump recorded a robocall on Kobach's behalf in the final days of the primary campaign, which may have been even more important than the tweet.
"Kris Kobach will use all the wedge issues -- immigration, abortion, guns -- when he runs for governor," Hensley said. "I have, in the past, characterized him as the most racist politician in America, and I truly believe that's what he is."
Kansas Democratic national committeeman Chris Reeves predicted a large number of moderate Republicans will endorse Kelly. He suggested that will show significant bipartisan pushback against the idea of Kobach as governor.
"(Democrats) facing Kobach is a very stark contrast. Kris Kobach sees everything that's wrong with the world and we see everything that could be right," Reeves said.
State Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, said he was hopeful that Kobach will "reassert the authority of the governor" if elected.
Fitzgerald pointed to Kobach's opposition to complying with Kansas Supreme Court rulings requiring additional funding as being a key factor in his decision to endorse the secretary of state.
Kobach has called for deep spending cuts to pay for income tax cuts last year after lawmakers overrode Brownback's veto last year to pass a tax increase to cover the state's budget hole.
Kelly seized on the comparison to Brownback in a statement Tuesday night.
"With Kris Kobach as Governor, Kansans get all of the failed policies of Sam Brownback plus Kobach's unique brand of hyper-partisanship and self-promotion. Quite simply, Kris Kobach is Sam Brownback on steroids, and that's the last thing that Kansans need right now," Kelly said.
Orman's campaign responded to question about Kobach's nomination with a statement that called both Kelly and Kobach career politicians.
The primary race highlighted an issue that will feature prominently in the general election campaign: voting rights.
Kobach has championed some of the strictest voting laws in the country during his eights years as the state's chief election officer and his role on Trump's voter fraud commission drew national scrutiny until the panel was disbanded earlier this year amid a flood of lawsuits.
Colyer's legal team sent out a letter to the Johnson County Board of Canvassers an hour before the county certified its election results to call on the county to include 153 ballots that were being discarded because the signature did not match the one in the voter's file.
Colyer's legal team argued that Kansas law does not require verification as a precondition to accepting a vote.
"Absent clear evidence of actual fraud, Kansas takes a permissive view that places special emphasis on the right to vote and excuses a voter's failure to follow requirements that do not seriously call into question the voter's intent," said Edward Greim, an attorney at the Kansas City-based Graves Garrett law firm.
Johnson County Commissioner Michael Ashcraft said that the policy of verifying signatures is longstanding.
"They make a good faith effort to do that. I hope it's 100 percent, but I'm not a handwriting expert and I don't review each one of them," Ashcraft said. "But they do and they actually have, I think, three levels of review to verify. I hope it's 100 percent. I suspect it's pretty close to 100 percent."
Ed Eilert, who chairs both the canvassing board and the county commission, also defended the policy.
"If you're not going to match signatures, then I or you, could sign for 10 or 15 people. It doesn't make sense to me," said Eilert, who noted that he is not an attorney.
The letter from Colyer's attorneys was sent the same day that a federal judge ruled that a similar New Hampshire law is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.
The legal challenge against the New Hampshire was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a 95-year-old woman who is legally blind.
The ACLU defeated Kobach in another voting rights case this year when a federal judge ruled unconstitutional a Kansas law that required voters to provide proof of citizenship to register.
The ACLU of Kansas reacted strongly to Kobach's nomination, calling him "a grave threat to Kansans' civil liberties and most deeply shared values."
Before he conceded, Colyer's campaign had given signs that he might pursue legal action to ensure every possible ballot was counted in the race.
But the likelihood of a court case diminished after Colyer failed to close the gap.
Colyer's supporters went into Tuesday convinced that the governor needed a strong performance in Johnson County before he could pursue any legal remedies.
"I think Johnson County is crucial. There's all of these irregularities and there's all of these what-if's and a bunch of things that I think are good legal arguments ... but ultimately you've got to pick up votes," said a Republican strategist who works in Kansas and supports Colyer.
Fitzgerald acknowledged that it would be challenging for the party to unite after an acrimonious primary, but he said that Republicans would find a way before the fall.
"I'm not exactly sure of how we're going to pull it together, but that's going to be one of the responsibilities of the leader of the party and right now that appears to be Kris Kobach," he said.
After the draining week, Kobach said he planned to unwind Tuesday night by spending time with his family. He wanted to make it back in time to tuck his daughters in to bed.
"I wanted to be at home tonight rather than sitting in a sweaty war room with my campaign staff," Kobach said.
Katie Glueck of McClatchy's Washington bureau contributed to this report.
(c)2018 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)