TOPEKA — Democrat Laura Kelly appeared to be on her way to winning election Tuesday night as Kansas' governor against conservative Republican Kris Kobach in a campaign that revealed voters in red-state Kansas wanted to shift executive branch power back to the center.
The projection was made by NBC, CNN and FOX without reporting of complete results.
Months of polling foreshadowed a toss-up election that came down to who -- Kelly or Kobach -- had the campaign message, financial prowess and organizational muscle to drive turnout. Despite a massive GOP registration advantage over Democrats in Kansas, the race was made close by Kobach's high negatives and Kelly's ability to link Kobach to unpopular policies of the unpopular administration of former Gov. Sam Brownback.
"I’m so proud of everything we’ve accomplished together during this campaign," Kelly said at outside of Election Day. "It’s clear Kansans are ready to for a change."
In a midterm election that broke Kansas records for advance voting, here's where the count stood at 9:45 p.m.: Kelly, 411,339, or 50 percent; Kobach, 341,826, or 41 percent; independent Greg Orman, 50,926, or 6 percent; Libertarian Jeff Caldwell, 14,777, or 2 percent, and independent Rick Kloos, 4,898, or 1 percent. The result reflected, 2,413 of 3,556 precincts.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat and chair of the Democratic Governor's Association, said the preliminary totals were evidence enough.
“Kansans are getting a proven leader with a long bipartisan record who will work to strengthen Kansas schools and expand access to health care for the state’s working families," Inslee said.
Kelly, a soft-spoken Topeka state senator, pledged to deliver centrist leadership, a sensibility illustrated by endorsements from Democratic Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and John Carlin and former Govs. Mike Hayden and Bill Graves. The only living governor to stay on the sidelines was Brownback, who now works in the Trump administration.
Kelly promised to bring greater stability to the state government's budget and to improve investment in core services of education, health care and infrastructure.
Kobach's campaign featured full-throated, unapologetic enthusiasm for President Donald Trump. The GOP nominee worked to translate into Kansas terms the president's focus on immigration, tax reform, the courts and corruption among political elites. It played well among Trump diehards, but it didn't appeal to voters unwilling inaugurate a Trump surrogate as Kansas governor.
Kobach, who has served as secretary of state since 2011, was convinced endorsements from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence would drive like-minded Republicans and conservative-leaning independents to his corner.
"I think President Trump’s voice matters a great deal," Kobach said. "He has done probably more campaigning or at least more effective campaigning than any president, Republican or Democrat, in recent memory."
On the campaign trail, Kelly pummeled Kobach for praising Brownback, who was among the nation's least popular governors before resigning in January to be international ambassador of religious freedom for Trump.
Kelly offered a bright-line contrast to Kobach by leaving no doubt she would oppose legislative attempts to resume Brownback's experiments in lowering income taxes and raising sales taxes.
"Everywhere you look -- our schools, roads, economy -- all devastated by the reckless Brownback tax experiment," Kelly said. "It's time to restore Kansas and invest in our people again."
Kobach, who won the August primary over Gov. Jeff Colyer by 343 votes, had predicted the outcome Tuesday could come down to "few hundred votes."
Kelly directed her campaign exclusively at Kobach, repeatedly declaring Orman wouldn't be a factor in the outcome. At the same time, Kobach said he was convinced Orman had potential to swing the outcome. Orman couldn't find the sweet spot he exploited in 2014 when he gave U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts a scare.
"When we vote out of courage for the leadership we believe in instead of succumbing to fear driven by partisan politics and its nationally-driven agendas, we will ensure that this election is about the people of Kansas," Orman said.