Gov. Sam Brownback triumphed over Democrat Paul Davis late Tuesday, collecting 50 percent of the vote in a hard-fought race.
Brownback, who took plenty of hits on the campaign trail, entered the stage at his victory party in Topeka to the theme from the movie “Rocky” and joked that he felt as if he had just survived 15 rounds in a boxing match.
He kept his remarks to a crowd of joyous supporters brief.
“This is a great nation. This is a fabulous state. We’re going to make it even better,” he said. His supporters then broke out bottles of champagne.
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Davis, who had 46 percent of the vote with more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, conceded at around 11 p.m., when he and running mate Jill Docking appeared before a crowd of supporters in Lawrence.
Docking thanked supporters, donors and campaign volunteers.
“These young people have worked unbelievably hard. We had a small but mighty force, and I gotta tell you, we were the talk of the nation in large part because of all they’ve done,” she said.
Davis congratulated Brownback on his victory and thanked supporters.
“This was an intense and very competitive campaign where a clear division existed between what we thought Kansas needed to do to prosper in the coming years,” Davis said. “But the campaign is over. We have very real challenges to face as a state, and the only real way we can overcome these challenges is to face them together.”
He said running for governor was “one of the greatest experiences of my entire life.”
“While we fell just short of the outcome we wanted, I would do it all over again in a second.”
Libertarian candidate Keen Umbehr got 4 percent of the vote.
Brownback had trailed Davis in most polls since the early summer, although the race appeared to tighten in recent weeks.
Earlier in the evening, Brownback waited out the vote-counting at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka along with U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts and other GOP heavyweights.
Kelly Arnold, the state GOP chairman, said that party was “functioning at its most high-octane level we’ve ever had” and that the close races had caused volunteers to come out in droves to rescue Brownback from defeat.
Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, said early on that he was cautiously optimistic but admitted that he hadn’t been so nervous about an election since he first ran for office.
By 10:30 pm, Bruce was more confident.
“I’m about ready to dance a jig,” he said.
Bruce said that Davis had “tried to run as ‘I’m not Sam Brownback.’ And in the end, that just isn’t enough for people.”
Carol Linnens – formerly Carol Rupe, a Wichita school board member – was in Lawrence on Tuesday with several friends to watch returns and cheer on Davis.
“There are dozens of reasons” she wanted Davis to win, she said. “But by far the most important would be for education – so we can get proper funding for our public schools.”
After the loss, Linnens said she was shocked and disappointed.
“One good thing, though,” she added. “If Brownback gets four more years, he has to deal with his own mess instead of Paul Davis inheriting his mess.”
‘Shot of adrenaline’
Brownback has contended his policies are working. The governor pushed for a bill that eliminated income taxes for certain businesses and sharply reduced rates across the board – a move he promised would be “a shot of adrenaline” to the Kansas economy.
The governor’s critics said the tax cuts have failed to generate economic growth but have wreaked havoc on the state’s budget.
The state faces a growing budget shortfall – currently estimated at $282 million by July 2016 – after it missed revenue projections by more than $20 million the past two months.
Brownback has said there is no budget problem and that he expects economic growth to replace revenue lost to the tax cuts. He points to the state’s low unemployment rate as proof that the economy is on the right path.
Davis had called for tax rates to be frozen at 2015 levels instead of allowing additional tax cuts to go into effect.
Question of conservatism
Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, called Brownback the most conservative governor in modern Kansas history.
“This election, to me anyway, as soon as we get the results, we have an answer to that question: Is Kansas as conservative as everybody says? If Davis wins, no. If Brownback wins, then, yeah, looks like it is,” Beatty said before the outcome was known.
Brownback, who was elected to Congress in 1994 and served two terms in the U.S. Senate, was elected governor in 2010 by about 23 percentage points over Democrat Tom Holland.
On Tuesday morning, the political forecasting site FiveThirtyEight gave Davis an 80 percent chance of winning the tight race for governor.
The site, run by statistician Nate Silver, correctly predicted Barack Obama’s victories in the last two presidential elections and anticipated the winner of 36 of 37 governors’ races in 2010.
Despite the forecasts, the Brownback campaign struck a confident tone heading into the election, based on strong early voting numbers for the GOP.
“We feel confident that voters on Tuesday will see the clear choice they have between the conservative leadership of Sam Brownback and the liberal agenda and lack of details offered by Paul Davis,” John Milburn, the campaign’s spokesman, said Monday.
That confidence proved to be justified.
“This is freakin’ Kansas, man,” Ryan Gilliland, chief of staff to Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said around the time it became clear Brownback would win. “I have a lot of respect for Nate Silver. But he doesn’t spend much time here.”
Wagle said there was a phenomenon of quiet conservatives, people that “don’t tend to get real involved in politics, much less put out a sign or answer the phone when a pollster calls.”
“But that group of people votes, and faith and family and economic opportunity is very important to them,” she said.
Brownback’s campaign pushed the issue of judicial selection during the final weeks of the campaign, airing a controversial ad that sought to tie Davis to a Kansas Supreme Court decision to overturn death sentences for Reginald and Jonathan Carr, who committed five murders in Wichita in 2000.
The Kansas Republican Party sent out mailers describing the details of the murders and accusing Davis of “endangering the safety of your family.”
Davis had no role in the Carrs’ appeals but supports the current merit-based selection process for judges. Clay Barker, the Kansas Republican Party’s executive director, defended the mailers and said Davis “repeatedly voted against reforming the court system, creating a more accountable court system.”
Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University, said the focus on the Carr decision stems from Sedgwick County’s position as a battleground in the race. Both campaigns aggressively targeted the Wichita area during the course of the campaign.
“I’m working off what I call the ‘two W’ theory. The breaks among women and Wichita will determine the winners of these races,” Rackaway said. “Either the Brownback campaign thought they were behind in Sedgwick County and they thought the Carr brothers were a good issue to bring up, or they saw an opportunity to expand their support.”
Brownback had a 3-point lead in Sedgwick County. The county saw a 51.1 percent turnout, slightly lower than in 2010.
Davis centered his campaign on education, calling for base education aid to be restored to pre-recession levels. His candidacy has got a boost from public school teachers upset with Brownback’s decision to sign a bill that increased school funding but also eliminated a state mandate for due process hearings before a teacher can be fired.
Brownback, on the other hand, saw the cavalry arrive in the form of the national Republican Party.
The Republican Governors Association spent $3.7 million on the race from the end of July through October. The organization’s chairman, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, frequently joined Brownback on the campaign trail, as did other rumored 2016 presidential contenders, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.