TOPEKA — Democrat Laura Kelly convincingly won election Tuesday night as Kansas' governor against the aggressive conservatism of Republican Kris Kobach in a campaign that revealed voters in red-state Kansas wanted to shift executive branch power back to the center.
"Today, Kansans voted for change," Kelly told supporters during her victory speech in Topeka. "A change not only in the direction of our state, but a change in tone. We chose to put people before politics."
Kelly, elected on a ticket with Wichita Sen. Lynn Rogers, said the outcome wasn't part of a blue wave but a current of common sense. She said that as governor, she would be open to the best ideas, regardless of party label, and work to throttle hyper-partisanship of the past eight years.
"Partisanship was put above all else and it tore our state apart. That ended today," said Kelly, who promised to turn the page on administrations of Govs. Sam Brownback and Jeff Colyer.
Kobach made a concession speech at a Topeka hotel several miles from Kelly's gathering. "This one just wasn't God's will," Kobach said.
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 Brownback administration.
In a midterm election that broke Kansas records for advance voting, here is where the count stood at 11:30 p.m.: Kelly, 483,4011, or 48 percent; Kobach, 433,419, or 43 percent; independent Greg Orman, 64,595, or 6 percent; Libertarian Jeff Caldwell, 18,666, or 2 percent, and independent Rick Kloos, 6,122, or 1 percent. The result reflected 3,475 of 3,556 precincts.
Kelly, a soft-spoken Topeka state senator, pledged to deliver centrist leadership, a sensibility illustrated by endorsements from former Democratic Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and John Carlin and Republican Govs. Mike Hayden and Bill Graves.
Kelly promised to instill a big-tent philosophy to state government. She pledged greater stability in the state's budget and meaningful investment in education, health care and infrastructure.
Kobach's campaign offered 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.
Kobach, who has served as secretary of state since 2011, was convinced the all-star endorsement would drive like-minded Republicans to his corner. Kobach won the August primary over Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer by a mere 343 votes.
"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 offering praise for Brownback. She offered a bright-line contrast to Kobach by leaving no doubt she would oppose legislative attempts to resume Brownback's strategy of lowering income taxes and raising sales taxes.
Kelly directed her campaign primarily at Kobach, declaring Orman wouldn't be a factor in the outcome. Kobach said he was convinced Orman had potential to swing the result, but Orman never found the sweet spot he exploited in 2014 when he gave U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts a scare.