TOPEKA — Kris Kobach emerged Wednesday from an all-night marathon of sluggish ballot processing in Johnson County with a 191-vote lead over his Republican rival, Gov. Jeff Colyer, and the prospect of an all-but-certain recount hanging over the party's gubernatorial primary.
With thousands of provisional ballots waiting to be considered by county canvass boards who have until Aug. 21, and advance ballots arriving through the mail until Friday, the race could remain unsettled for weeks.
Rather than give GOP opponents a head start, Kobach launched a tentative campaign, promising to hand off the baton if Colyer prevails.
He compared state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat from Topeka, to former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and said independent Greg Orman is so liberal, Democrats pressured their own candidate off the ballot during the 2014 congressional race between Orman and U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts.
“I am asking Republicans to stand with me now as we begin this race and run forward to victory in November," Kobach said. "We have to stand together. We owe it to each other, and we owe it to the people of Kansas to start making our case so they can make their decision.”
The governor was determined to wait for a final tally before talking about a recount, saying he remains optimistic about his chances. Both candidates agreed to support each other regardless of who wins.
“We’ve been working our tails off serving the people of Kansas, and hopefully, we’ll get to continue to do that for the next four years," Colyer said.
Both camps spent Tuesday night engaged in the rare drama of frequent lead changes and delays from the state's most populous county, which was using new election equipment for the first time. Johnson County reported its final numbers about 8 a.m. Wednesday.
The machine makers there, Election Systems and Software, took responsibility for unwelcome lags caused by software slowly uploading data from flash drives.
In addition to recording votes electronically, the company's machines also produce a paper copy of each ballot. If a candidate pursues a recount, he could request the votes to be recounted by hand.
The candidate requesting the recount would need to post bond for the estimated cost. Counties would be responsible for the cost only if the outcome changes. As secretary of state, Kobach would oversee the efforts.
Kobach said he wouldn't need to recuse himself because he wouldn't be involved in the actual counting of ballots and would remain an arm's length away. Colyer declined to offer an opinion on the matter, saying, "We're not there yet."
"They can do what they want," Kelly said, "but if I were making the decision, I would recuse myself."
Kelly plans to make support for public education her top campaign issue. She also wants to invest in highways, broadband and Medicaid expansion.
Seeking to tap into widespread dismay with former Gov. Sam Brownback, Kelly described Colyer as Brownback's right-hand man and referred to Kobach as Brownback on steroids.
"We're going to inject common sense and moderation into state government," Kelly said. "We're going to get back to the Kansas we love."
Kobach said Kansans want to protect public schools, but not by allowing courts to determine how much money is spent. He supports a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature unilateral authority over funding levels, which have been a focal point in decades of litigation. He also wants to refocus spending on teacher salaries and classroom materials.
He said the main differences between himself and Colyer, other than style, are that he is more aggressive on illegal immigration and would have vetoed legislation that phases in more than $500 million in K-12 funding over five years.
“You can describe me how you want," Kobach said, "but on core Republican issues, Jeff and I, we are standing in the same place.”
Kansans, Kobach said, are ready to reduce the size of government, stop illegal immigration and protect unborn life. They also want to protect employees from workplace injuries, he said.
With Republican Party voters so narrowly divided in the choice for governor, GOP leaders called upon the faithful to ensure Kelly doesn't get a foothold in the race.
Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, said voters need to understand there is a difference between Republicans and Democrats.
"Oftentimes," she said, "we talk to our friends, we talk to our neighbors, and they're looking at this race as, well, I'm voting for the person. And it's very true in female races. They go, 'Oh, well, that woman has elevated herself,' and you quit worrying about the party."
Roberts said he depended on GOP unity to defeat Orman four years ago.
“Remember that a house divided among itself cannot stand," Roberts said. "Neither can an elephant.”
The Libertarian choice for governor, Jeff Caldwell, of Leawood, said the close GOP race is reflective of a broken two-party system.
“Within the Republican Party, you’re seeing a division that’s been a long time coming," Caldwell said.
His platform, which he said will represent factions from both sides of both major parties, features a push for the legalization of marijuana.//