His last real prospects of winning the Republican nomination for the office he holds slipping away one county canvass after the next, Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer conceded the primary race to Secretary of State Kris Kobach on Tuesday night.
That assured his governorship will be among the most short-lived in Kansas history, and that Republicans will send perhaps the state’s most polarizing politician into the fall elections.
In the end, Kobach appeared on course to win the nomination with just 41 percent of the vote and a tiny fraction of a percent more votes than Colyer.
But by late Tuesday, a week after the primary, Kobach’s slim margin still dashed the last hopes of the Colyer campaign.
Now Kobach faces Democrat Laura Kelly, a party leader in the state Senate, and independent candidate Greg Orman in the general election.
Colyer said in a Capitol news conference Tuesday night that the prospects of reversing the outcome of the primary without breeding added discord among Republicans seemed too remote to pursue.
“The numbers are just not there unless we would go to extraordinary measures,” the governor said as emotion crept into his voice. “(Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann) and I will not challenge this in court nor will we be asking for a recount.
“Right here and now,” he said, “we will endorse the winner, Kris Kobach.”
The last attainable goal, he said, rested in pulling Republicans together to maintain hold of the governor’s office.
The announcement capped off a tough intra-party fight among two of its most hard-line conservatives. They differed mostly in style.
Colyer was the loyal and soft-spoken lieutenant governor to then-Gov. Sam Brownback until early this year. Colyer stepped up to the governor’s post when the by-then unpopular Brownback left for an ambassador’s post in the Trump administration. Once Colyer became governor, he agreed with lawmakers to an education funding hike that Kobach blasted as unnecessary and too expensive.
Kobach, in contrast, has marked his career with an eagerness to contest his opponents in ways, and on topics, that have given him a national profile.
He took the secretary of state’s office from an often-overlooked post as recordkeeper to a national platform on his pet issues — illegal immigration and voter fraud.
Kobach has just as often seen his claims on those issues fall apart in public. This spring, for example, his claims of rampant voter cheating crumbled in a federal court case. A judge ruled against his demands of proof-of-citizenship for voter registration and held him in contempt for wrongly enforcing rules rejected by the court.
With Colyer stepping aside, Kobach charges into a general election campaign unsure whether his high profile will energize more conservatives on his behalf or liberals to defeat him. Some polls have suggested Colyer might have fared better than Kobach in the general election.
Winners of hard-fought primaries often must moderate their rhetoric to appeal to general election voters. But Kobach doesn’t need to do that to be competitive in a three-person race, said Washburn University political scientist Bob Beatty.
“Kobach could essentially be rejected by the majority of Republicans and a majority of Kansans in two elections and (still) be governor,” Beatty said.
Colyer would have needed two out of every three remaining provisional ballots awaiting review from county election officials across the state — and take an even more extraordinary margin if the usual number of those votes was rejected.
As his prospects dwindled, Colyer continued challenging how election officials are tallying votes. As late as Tuesday afternoon, for instance, his attorney blasted election canvassers in Johnson County for not including 153 advanced voting ballots where a poll worker believed signatures on envelopes did not match those the county had on file.
Ronnie Metsker, appointed the Johnson County election commissioner by Kobach last year had said Monday that those ballots mostly involved a voter’s parent or spouse mistakenly signing an envelope.
In his letter on Colyer’s behalf on Tuesday, Edward Greim called on Metsker and the Johnson County Board of Canvassers to include 153 ballots that were ruled out because of the signatures.
“Registered voters attempting to vote should not be punished for errors (often of some other person) that do not implicate the intent of the voter or validity of the vote,” he said in the letter.
While Colyer lobbed that criticism, he was falling further behind in the vote totals. Kobach called the letter a “Hail Mary.” After the concession, Kobach called Colyer "incredibly gracious."
By day’s end Monday, after the Johnson County votes were counted, he trailed Kobach by more than 300 votes.
State Senate President Susan Wagle, a hard-line conservative like both Colyer and Kobach, tweeted on Tuesday that a protracted fight over the vote counting could undermine the eventual Republican nominee’s chances in the general election.
To prepare for the November election, Wagle suggested walking away from disputes over the Aug. 7 primary.
“Democrats,” she tweeted, “are hoping for a drawn-out litigation process.”
Democrats are hoping for a drawn-out litigation process because it’s the only way they can win this November. It’s time for the @KansasGOP to unite & back whoever comes out on top this week. Let’s keep Kansas red!#ksleg— Susan Wagle (@SenatorWagle) August 14, 2018
Kansas has no automatic recount provision for primary contests. A loser who calls for a recount risks picking up the cost if it doesn’t reverse the outcome.
Colyer’s criticism of the tallies happening in the week following the primary — “we have to get the first vote right,” he said last week — hadn’t gone to issues that a recount would change.
He had called on Kobach to hand off the secretary of state’s oversight of the election results to Attorney General Derek Schmidt. Instead, Kobach put his deputy Erick Rucker in charge.
Kobach, meantime, held his own press conference two hours before Colyer conceded.
“It’s time for Republicans to start unifying and gearing up,” he said in Johnson County.
He claimed to pose a clearer anti-tax choice to voters than Colyer, and a stark contrast to the way he viewed Kelly and Orman.
“It is so essential that when we march together, we have seen historically, we win together,” Kobach said. “It’s also important to recognize that the other campaigns are already moving.”
Orman, for instance, has begun airing TV ads.
“The longer Republicans stay in neutral, the farther behind in the race we will be,” Kobach said.
“I stand ready to engage in the general election, indeed we’re champing at the bit to get going in the general election.”
Kelly was waiting for him, issuing an attack on Kobach in a statement released less than 20 minutes after Colyer conceded the primary.
“With Kris Kobach as governor,” she said in a news release, “Kansans get all of the failed policies of Sam Brownback plus Kobach’s unique brand of hyper-partisanship and self-promotion.”
The Orman campaign issued a statement late Tuesday saying voters would have a choice “between two career politicians who have been part of the problem in Topeka or an independent businessman.”
Jim McLean of the Kansas News Service contributed to this report.
Stephan Bisaha reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @SteveBisaha.
Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.
Scott Canon is digital editor of the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @ScottCanon.
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