TOPEKA (TNS) — It was a sharp contrast: A map of how Kansas counties voted for governor was a sea of red, with only a few islands of blue in the central and eastern half of the state.
Those islands were the state's urban centers, and they held Democratic voters that powered Laura Kelly to victory by 5 percentage points — or nearly 46,000 votes — over Republican Kris Kobach.
Politicians and political observers increasingly speak of an urban-rural divide in Kansas politics, especially after the November election.
In the future, the divide might make it easier for Democrats to take the governor's office, or even consistently hold a congressional seat. For the first time in years, Kansas Democrats grew as a percentage of the state's registered voters. They now account for about a quarter of all voters.
It also means that Republicans may fortify their hold on rural Kansas and that rural Democrats will have a more difficult time getting elected. Several rural Democratic lawmakers lost their races. The state now will have no Democratic state lawmakers west of Hutchinson, and just one in southeast Kansas.
"If you two years ago, you'd have asked me that, I wouldn't necessarily have agreed that there is that divide. But based on this most recent election, it seems as if it's happening," said Rep. Monica Murnan, a Democrat who represents Pittsburg and will soon be the sole Democratic state lawmaker from southeast Kansas.
In the state's 10 most-populated counties — which includes Johnson and Sedgwick, among others — Kelly received nearly 86,000 more votes than Paul Davis, the party's 2014 nominee for governor. By comparison, Kobach got only about 7,100 more votes in those counties than Republican Sam Brownback did running for re-election in 2014.
"I would definitely call this a purple county," said Nancy Leiker, who chairs the Democratic Party in Johnson County.
Since 2014, the county party has stepped up its candidate recruitment efforts, doubled its number of precinct committeemen and women and adopted more systematic approach to voter turnout. That's produced results.
"In '14 we had two state reps. In '16 we added four to that. And this year we added four," Leiker said. "Johnson County has never had 10 (Democratic) state reps before... And this year we pushed four of the five statewide races blue (in the county)."
In addition to Kelly, Johnson County also backed the Democrat in the races for secretary of state, state treasurer and attorney general — even though the attorney general candidate, Sarah Swain, was disavowed by the state Democratic Party over past controversial statements.
None of those Democratic candidates won, but the county helped Sharice Davids capture a congressional seat for Democrats for the first time in a decade..
Davids also put significant energy into reaching out to minority and young voters in Wyandotte County, which historically has a notoriously low turnout rate.
She visited high schools around the district and was one of only two congressional candidates to attend a forum for African American women in the Kansas City area about a month before the election.
Wyandotte County, which includes urban Kansas City, Kansas, set a record for turnout in a mid-term election at 49.1 percent, a 13.5 percentage point increase over its 2014 turnout rate.
"Elected officials, politicians in general, don't always make the effort to reach out to as many communities as possible, so that was one of the things that we really tried to make sure we did," Davids said.
The surge of Democratic votes in Johnson and Wyandotte County didn't extend to Sedgwick County, however.
While the county went for Kelly, voters did not back other Democratic statewide candidates. And it backed U.S. Rep. Ron Estes over Democratic congressional candidate James Thompson.
Democratic gains in urban and suburban centers did not translate into increased success in rural areas. They lost several rural House seats, though with urban and suburban pickups they appear likely to continue to hold 40 of the chamber's 125 seats.
Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican who managed Kobach's campaign, doesn't think there's an urban-rural divide.
"I think it really just comes down to the issues," Claeys said.
Kelly Arnold, the outgoing chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said the demographics of political parties shift over time and that many rural people are moving into urban areas. The Republican Party needs to make sure its messages and policies are important to urban voters, he said.
"We've been reaching out to urban voters for years. That's been a big part of what we do as a party," Arnold said. "But it has changed. It is something that as we move forward we need to make sure we're spending enough time on the issues that are important to each district, whether that be a rural district or an urban district."
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said the urban-rural divide has grown gradually over a couple of decades, both in Kansas and nationally.
The politics and size of the divide "have finally gotten to the point where they're becoming starkly obvious on maps," he said. "It's just very obvious visually now, in a way that we can see and understand."
Kelly won nine Kansas counties, but none west of Wichita and only one in southeast Kansas. Kansas House and Senate maps show vast swaths of red in western and central Kansas, too.
"Kansas is paralleling the United States as a whole and this election we see it starkly," said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University.