National News

Laura Kelly, a Kansas Democrat, Tops Kobach in Governor’s Race

Posted November 7, 2018 3:13 a.m. EST

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas voters rejected the sharply conservative message of Kris Kobach, a Republican known for fiery warnings about election fraud and illegal immigration, and instead elected state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, as governor of their red-leaning state.

Kelly’s victory on Tuesday, reported by The Associated Press, upended the Republican-dominated state Capitol in Topeka and stymied the political ascent of Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, who has aligned himself with President Donald Trump and has long been rumored to have his own presidential ambitions.

Kelly captured about 48 percent of the statewide vote to about 43 percent for Kobach.

“I just feel like we need more Democrats in office to get our government back under control,” Melody Ross, 67, said on Tuesday outside her polling place in Topeka.

Ross said she was a longtime registered Republican who was persuaded to vote for Kelly in part because several prominent Kansas Republicans endorsed her candidacy.

Loved by conservatives and loathed by the left, Kobach for years helped local governments craft policies that put restrictions on illegal immigrants. In two terms as secretary of state, he acquired the power to prosecute voter fraud, crafted laws that restricted voting and was held in contempt of court by a federal judge who struck down some of that legislation.

During his campaign for governor, Kobach, 52, presented himself as an effective policymaker who did not yield to opposition. He promised to crack down on unauthorized immigrants, cut the size of state government and reduce taxes.

“Some people on the left may disagree with some of the things I say,” Kobach told a crowd at a debate last month. But, he said, “I’ll deliver and I’ll get it done.”

At his watch party in Topeka, the mood turned somber soon after the polls closed. Kobach circulated through the crowd early in the night, pausing to pray with a group of supporters. But the crowd dwindled as Kelly ran up large margins in many of the state’s biggest counties.

Shortly before 11 p.m. local time, Kobach told the crowd that he had called to congratulate Kelly. “It was a tough, tough race,” he said. “We battled close to the very end. But this one just wasn’t God’s will.”

Kelly, 68, a longtime legislator from Topeka, focused her campaign on issues like Medicaid expansion, school funding and highway construction. She was relentless in trying to tie Kobach to former Gov. Sam Brownback, an unpopular Republican who left Kansas in January after presiding over big tax cuts and revenue shortfalls. Brownback, who served seven years as governor, was elected along with Kobach in 2010, and the two men have long shared a commitment to cutting taxes and enacting socially conservative policies.

Brownback, now a U.S. ambassador, promised Kansans that his signature tax cuts would provide a “shot of adrenaline” to the economy. But that growth failed to materialize, and the state was forced to make deep cuts to government services. Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers overrode Brownback’s veto and reversed most of the tax policy.

Kobach, who tried to distance himself from that policy on the campaign trail, said Brownback’s mistake was reducing taxes without first making large cuts to the size of state government.

Kelly, who has blamed the Brownback tax cuts for many of the state’s problems, reached out to Kansas’ sizable contingent of moderate Republicans and touted the endorsement of two former Republican governors and two former Republican senators.

“It’s the only way that we’ve ever gotten anything done in the state of Kansas,” Kelly said in a recent interview. “It’s been moderate Republicans and Democrats coming together.”

Many have speculated that Kobach, who served as vice chairman of the president’s voter fraud commission, could soon join the administration. While stumping for Kobach in Topeka last month, Trump joked that “I hope he loses because I want him so badly.”

Kansas is firmly Republican territory, but this election cycle brought an unusual amount of national attention and close races. Democrats, who had been shut out of the congressional delegation, had hoped to flip two of the state’s four seats in the House of Representatives.

In the 3rd Congressional District, based in Kansas City, Kansas, and the affluent Johnson County suburbs, Rep. Kevin Yoder was beaten by Sharice Davids, a Democrat. Davids, who is a Native American and lesbian, embraced her distinctive background while on the campaign trail.