Democrat Laura Kelly will become the next governor of Kansas after voters rejected Republican Kris Kobach’s hard-right campaign and embraced Kelly’s promises of moderation and stability.
Kelly vowed to put former Gov. Sam Brownback, and the years of budget woes brought on by his signature tax cuts, in the past.
“We have faced challenges over the last eight years like no other state. We’ve seen our schools devastated and the opportunities for our children put at risk,” Kelly said.
“Partisanship was put above all else and it tore our state apart. That ended today,” she said.
During a speech to supporters, Kelly promised to work with Republicans in the years ahead. She vowed to change the direction and tone of the state.
“There will be a lot of talk around America about a blue wave. But I don’t believe that’s what happened here in Kansas. What happened in Kansas was a wave of common sense, a wave of bipartisanship,” Kelly said.
Kelly, 68, led Kobach all evening and had 48 percent to his 43 percent with most precincts counted. Independent Greg Orman had 6 percent.
In Topeka, Kelly supporters cheered as the race was called for her earlier.
“I’m shocked. I thought Laura would win, but I thought we were in for a long night,” said Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, D-Kansas City. “And I never thought it would be this decisive, this early.”
At the Kobach watch party across town, the Don McLean classic song “American Pie” was cut off and a man walked on stage and began championing Kobach’s campaign as, unbeknownst to him, NBC News called the race for Kelly.
“Already?” Kansas GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold said. “That’s early.”
A thinned but enthusiastic crowd stayed until just before 11 p.m. for Kobach’s concession speech. He pointed to the historical precedent of Republicans struggling to succeed Republicans in the governor’s office.
“Headwinds all the way for our team, but that’s all right,” Kobach said. “We fought as hard as we could into those headwinds. We were outspent by $2.5 million approximately.”
Kobach thanked his family, running mate, campaign team and supporters.
“I know that we were carried by prayer,” Kobach said. “It was a tough tough race. We battled close to the very end, but this just wasn’t God’s will.”
Kelly, a state senator from Topeka, campaigned as a moderate. She contended the bipartisan relationships she has built in the Statehouse since joining the Senate in 2005 will make her an effective governor.
Kelly focused much of her time in the Legislature on the state’s child welfare system, which has been rocked by a series of shortcomings and controversies over the past several years. She has also been critical of how the state’s welfare programs have been run over the past few years as Brownback and Republican lawmakers restricted benefits.
Kelly will be the third woman to occupy the governor’s office in state history, following in the footsteps of her close friend and mentor, Kathleen Sebelius, the last elected Democratic governor of Kansas.
She has no immediate plans to cut income taxes, though she has voiced support for reducing the tax on food. Kansas taxes food at the same rate as other goods, unlike many other states.
Kelly has indicated she generally supports property tax relief, but has not detailed specific plans.
Kelly also supports boosting education spending to the amount needed to finally resolve a years-long lawsuit over school funding
Earlier this year, lawmakers approved an annual increase of more than $500 million that’s phasing in over five years. The state’s Supreme Court largely signed off on the package, but wants lawmakers to take inflation into account.
Kelly also wants to expand and overhaul the state’s Medicaid program, a move that could affect more than 400,000 participants.
Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican who opposed Kobach during the campaign, said Kobach’s loss is a rejection of the Brownback mentality toward government.
“(It’s) people saying enough,” Bollier said. “We’re not going down that road anymore.”
Voter Connie Buss, 85, of Wichita, said she didn’t like Brownback’s education policies, and she thought Kobach was too much like Brownback.
“I voted for Laura Kelly because I don’t want another Brownback,” she said.
The Kansas governor’s election came during nationwide midterm contests that were largely seen as a referendum on the first two years of Trump’s presidential term. No Kansas politician more closely aligned himself with Trump than Kobach, who informally advised the president on immigration and voter fraud.
While Kobach tethered himself to the nation’s top Republican, Kelly won the backing of past Kansas Republican leaders, like Govs. Bill Graves and Mike Hayden.
Former Republican U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum also endorsed Kelly earlier this fall, saying, “It seems to me that Kobach has developed a record that shows a focus on ways and how to accomplish his end goals that I think are not the best for Kansas.”
During the fall campaign, Kelly developed a clear money advantage over Kobach, outraising him by more than $900,000 between late July and late October and outspending him by nearly that much.
Kobach’s running mate, Wichita businessman Wink Hartman, loaned the campaign more than $1.5 million during that time. Kelly and her running mate, Wichita Sen. Lynn Rogers, gave minimal amounts to their campaign.
Throughout the race, Democrats feared that Orman would draw away voters who would otherwise vote for Kelly, and possibly hand Kobach the election.
That fear even came from inside Orman’s campaign. In the final days of the race, Tim Owens, a former Republican state senator, resigned his position as Orman’s campaign treasurer and instead endorsed Kelly as the only way to stop Kobach.
In the end, Kelly continued the historic pattern in Kansas of the governorship flipping between political parties.
Contributing: The Eagle’s Jason Tidd