TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Democrat Laura Kelly won the Kansas governor’s race Tuesday, prevailing over Republican Kris Kobach after promising to slam the door on conservative budget and tax-cutting policies that were followed by persistent budget problems.
Kelly, a veteran state senator from Topeka, defeated Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, even though Kobach is President Donald Trump’s closest ally in a state that Trump won handily in 2016. Independent candidate and Kansas City-area businessman Greg Orman trailed far behind.
The Democratic governor-elect made former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and his ill-fated 2012-13 experiment in slashing state income taxes — not Trump — a key issue in her red state. Budget woes made Kansas a cautionary example of how not to do trickle-down economics, and Kelly was visible in the successful and bipartisan effort in 2017 that reversed most of the cuts.
“They spoke with a single thunderous voice,” Kelly said of voters in her victory speech at a Topeka hotel. “Kansans voted for change, a change not only in the direction of our state but a change in the tone in our state.”
Kelly wooed GOP moderates and independent voters upset with Brownback’s tax-cutting experiment. She said her victory signaled greater bipartisanship.
Kelly’s message resonated with even Republican voters such as Kimberli Evans, a 43-year-old federal employee from Topeka, who voted for the Democratic nominee. She said fair funding for public schools is one of her big concerns.
“I believe that the Brownback experiment did not work and needs to be reversed,” Evans said after casting her ballot.
Kobach had criticized the $600 million-a-year income tax increase and campaigned on shrinking government so that the state could resume cutting taxes.
Kobach brought some celebrity to the race, having built a national profile as an advocate of tough immigration policies and strict voter identification laws. He has advised Trump and served as vice chairman of Trump’s since-disbanded commission on voter fraud.
He narrowly ousted Gov. Jeff Colyer in the GOP primary in August after Trump defied a split among his advisers and tweeted an endorsement of Kobach. Trump carried the state easily in the 2016 presidential race and had a rally to help Kobach’s campaign in October. Donald Trump Jr. had two fundraising events for him.
“We fought the good fight,” Kobach told his supporters at another Topeka hotel. “This one just wasn’t God’s will.”
The contrast between Kobach and Kelly was stark because Kelly not only portrayed Kansas as in financial recovery but also had a list of places where she’d like to bolster spending, including higher education, early childhood education and mental health services.
Kansas is considered a deep red state with party registration 44 percent Republican and 25 percent Democratic. But its dominant Republican Party sometimes splits between moderates and conservatives, leaving an opening for a Democrat to peel off disaffected GOP voters. In recent decades the state has alternated between Republican and Democratic governors.
Kobach cited that historical trend in telling supporters that the race came with, “headwinds all the way for our team.”
That GOP rift emerged this year with the nomination of Kobach, who concentrated on motivating his conservative base rather than wooing moderate voters. Kobach said that if elected he would encourage immigrants living in the state illegally to leave Kansas.
Kelly said Kobach’s immigration policies would hurt the state’s economy, particularly in western Kansas, which depends on immigrant workers for the meatpacking industry.
Ellie Smith, a 24-year-old Democrat, stay-at-home mom and musician from Topeka, said Kobach’s positions on immigration “hurts my heart.”
“I believe that everybody belongs here,” she said.