Kansas awoke Wednesday to a Republican governor’s race that remains too close to call, with final results expected about 8 a.m. after significant problems hobbled Johnson County’s ability to count votes.
At 6 a.m., 541 votes separated Gov. Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who have both waged aggressive campaigns. The razor-thin margin on the Republican side came after Sen. Laura Kelly easily won the Democratic nomination Tuesday night.
The outcome holds national implications: A Kobach loss would embarrass President Donald Trump, who endorsed his informal adviser the day before polls closed.
The final batch of results out of Johnson County is expected to be posted online about 8, state elections director Bryan Caskey said on Twitter.
The secretary of state’s website shows Kobach with 121,203 votes to Colyer’s 120,662, with 95 percent of precincts reporting.
Campaign watch parties in Topeka and Overland Park turned into vigils as supporters of both candidates awaited results. Kobach and Colyer both addressed supporters after midnight but said nothing definitive.
The slow pace of results came after Johnson County rolled out new voting machines in Tuesday’s election.
“This is quite a deal here,” Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker acknowledged about 11 p.m. after the election offices had released very preliminary advanced voting results.
Earlier in the day, election officials had said they hoped to start posting results by about 7:30 p.m. and finish by 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Metsker said one piece of the problem was that turnout was unexpectedly high.
“I think we can safely say turnout was around 30 percent, which is very high for a primary in August,” he said.
The delayed results stemmed in part from long lines in Johnson County. As long as voters were in line by the scheduled closing of 7 p.m., they were allowed to vote, and a few polls did not close until after 8 p.m. The election office did not start to release results until after that time.
Metsker said the voting results were properly tabulated and secured, with a paper audit trail. But he also acknowledged that the new voting system had major problems with reporting the results.
Metsker said the vendor for the new machines, Election Systems & Software, had its best engineers working on the problem throughout the night. He said they had finally found a workaround for the problem about 11 p.m.
The slow crawl left supporters of both Colyer and Kobach to wait for news.
At Kobach’s party in Topeka, supporters milled around a large ballroom after midnight as upbeat music continued to play over loudspeakers. Earlier in the night, the room had been filled amid cheering whenever Kobach took the lead.
A bit before 1 a.m., Kobach said the race was too close to call. He thanked supporters and sent them home.
“Who knows, hopefully the ride will have another three months to it,” Kobach said, alluding to a possible victory.
At the Johnson County GOP watch party, a live band played past midnight. An official with Colyer’s campaign said the governor was at home with his family, but Colyer quickly arrived to talk to reporters and greet supporters.
The governor joked that people are getting used to “surgeon hours” rather than “politician hours.”
“We’re going to let everybody go home tonight, we’re going to sleep well,” Colyer said. “We’re going to be up listening.”
Colyer said he would hold an event in the Capitol at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Earlier in the day, Kobach said he was “cautiously optimistic.”
A Kobach victory would represent a stunning rejection by Republicans of the state’s sitting governor, Colyer, who took over the job in January when Sam Brownback resigned.
If Kobach wins, it will mean Republican voters have embraced a Kansas politician with a rising national profile whose style and politics echo Trump’s. The president endorsed the Kansas secretary of state on Twitter less than a day before polls closed.
“I think there’s no question him coming out formally and enthusiastically endorsing moved the needle, too,” Kobach said earlier in the day.
A Colyer win would mark a victory for the state’s Republican establishment. The governor had the backing of former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole and a host of other groups influential in Republican circles, including the Kansas Farm Bureau and the National Rifle Association.
A Colyer victory would also show that he was able to move out from the shadow of Brownback, whose signature tax cuts were largely reversed in 2017 after years of budget shortfalls.
At Colyer’s party in Johnson County, Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann worked the room and remained upbeat.
“We expect it’s going to go back and forth all night long,” Mann said. ”It’s been a great race.”
Asked earlier in the day what it would show about Kansas Republican voters if he lost, Colyer declined to say.
“You’re speculating on something that I don’t care to speculate about,” Colyer said.
Kobach has campaigned on a hard line against illegal immigration and has vowed to aggressively cut taxes and spending.
He has promised not to moderate his positions going into the general election, where Democrats and moderate Republicans are terrified he will take the state in a hard-right direction.
“If you’re a Trump supporter, and I am, he’s a Trump 2.0 at the state level,” said Keen Umbehr, a Kobach supporter who was the Kansas Libertarian nominee for governor in 2014.
Ron Cluck, who voted for Colyer in Kansas City, Kan., said the governor had shown himself to be a steadier hand since he took over from Brownback.
“Enough experimenting. Let’s calm the waters and try to get more toward the middle,” Cluck said, explaining his vote.
Kelly, speaking to supporters about 10 p.m. in Topeka, said a Kelly victory in November will bring “a change from the politics of rigid ideology (and) the politics of fighting, bickering and finger-pointing.”
She pledged to be “the education governor” and said she and fellow Kansans are “ready to restore everything that makes our state special,” including adequate funds for public schools.
“These are not partisan, political values,” she said. “These are Kansas values.”
Kelly had 51 percent of the vote, compared to 21 percent for former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and 18 percent for former state lawmaker Josh Svaty.
In the state’s first contested Democratic primary for governor in 20 years, Kelly, of Topeka, stood for what she called “center of the road” negotiating across political barriers. She also enjoyed the strong backing of a friend, Kathleen Sebelius, who was the last elected Democratic governor in the state.
Wichita voter Darin Pruitt said he voted for Kelly because his sister is an educator and he thinks Kelly will be education’s biggest supporter.
“I don’t care for either of our old governors,” Pruitt said, referring to Brownback and Colyer.
Some of Kelly’s centrist positions as a state lawmaker — particularly on gun owners’ rights and her 2011 vote in favor of tightening voter identification requirements — drew criticism from her primary rivals.
Still, that was not enough to topple Kelly, who took an early lead that continued to grow after the polls closed.
Brewer conceded the race to Kelly about 10 p.m. In prepared remarks, he urged Democrats to unify and support the nominee.
“The stakes are too high to remain divided. We must take the same energy and passion to make sure the Republican nominee is not the next governor of Kansas,” he said.
In his concession speech, Svaty characterized his campaign as a fight against the establishment on behalf of those who feel “disenfranchised or not listened to by either party.”
Privately, Svaty seemed surprised and disappointed by the election results.
“It’s so strange after seeing the numbers,” he said. “We always felt like we were a far stronger campaign. But elections are what they are, and we understand and appreciate that.”
When asked if he would endorse Kelly or any other candidate, Svaty demurred.
“Laura didn’t even ask,” he said. ”We’re actually going to go to Colorado for awhile and decompress. It’s been a long campaign.”
At a time when voters are being drawn to political outsiders, Kelly, 68, touted her Statehouse credentials, dating to her first Senate victory in 2004. She picked as her running mate fellow state Sen. Lynn Rogers, a former Wichita school board member.
The two sat beside each other in the Senate, Kelly noted, where both fought against Brownback’s 2012 tax overhaul and deep cuts in government services.
In recent years, Kelly has maintained a moderate approach and is known for working with Republicans, even as her party outside Kansas has trended further left and become more combative with elements of the GOP.
“She’s sane,” supporter Jeannine Herron said at the campaign’s watch party at Uncle Bo’s pub at the downtown Topeka Ramada Inn.
Contributing: Chance Swaim, Jenna Farhat, Rafael Garcia of The Eagle and Bryan Lowry and Lynn Horsley of The Star