On Wednesday morning, hours after polls had closed in Kansas in a dramatic primary race, many of the state’s prominent Republicans — party leaders, lawmakers and congressional candidates — converged at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka for the GOP’s semi-traditional post-election “unity breakfast.”
Two key Republicans, however, were missing from the event: Gov. Jeff Colyer and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Both men for months had been front-runners in a tight seven-way GOP gubernatorial primary. And both had stayed awake long past midnight Tuesday watching returns trickle in, then grind to a halt because of delays in the state’s largest county. When the sun rose Wednesday, only 191 votes separated the two.
Although state party leaders say neither Colyer nor Kobach had committed to attending this year’s unity breakfast, their absence would be the first sign of lingering discontent in a race that remains too close to call. In the days since, the two have been anything but unified, with each continuing to campaign as the presumptive winner.
The lack of a resolution puts Republicans in Kansas at a disadvantage heading into the general election in November, some say: A divided party without a clear nominee only cracks the door further for a Democrat to win, even in a deep-red state that Donald Trump carried by 20 points in the 2016 presidential election.
Even though Colyer and Kobach legally can begin fundraising for the general election, they probably have lost some momentum.
“Donors are going to be a little bit hesitant to put in a bigger check not knowing if it’s going to be the nominee or not. That’s really going to be one of the hindrances,” Kansas Republican Party Chairman Kelly Arnold said. “Both campaigns are obviously being distracted by this.”
Arnold said he has contacted both campaigns but that he is trying to stay neutral until a nominee is declared. That has been a challenge, as the state Republican Party would usually be ready to go, full-throttle ahead, on promoting all of its candidates.
“It’s kind of like we’re driving forward and we’re waiting for our governor passenger to hop in,” Arnold said.
They have reason to get a jump on campaigning for the general election: The winner of the GOP primary will face the projected Democratic nominee, state Sen. Laura Kelly, and independent candidate Greg Orman. Kelly had a strong showing Tuesday, earning more than 50 percent of the vote in the state’s first contested Democratic primary since 1998.
Since the 1960s, Kansas voters have not elected consecutive Democrats or Republicans to the governor’s office. This year, the GOP in Kansas must overcome the additional obstacle of convincing voters that conservative policies can still succeed in the state after then-Gov. Sam Brownback (R) enacted steep tax cuts that left the state’s economy, infrastructure funding and education systems reeling.
The backlash from Brownback’s “real live experiment” has created a fissure among state Republicans in recent years, especially regarding taxes and spending.
“There’s definitely a division in the Republican Party in the state, and there has been for some time,” said Rick Berger, an Atchison County businessman who serves as an economic adviser to Colyer. “In this past three or four years, a lot of it has been over taxes. That’s been a big issue. You’ve got the conservative side [of the party] that really wants to cut taxes, and then you’ve got the more moderates that think, ‘We’ve cut too far. We’ve still got to provide our services and everything else.’ ”
“Hopefully we’ll all come together,” he added. “It’s hard to do these days, but we’re still all Republicans.”
That may not happen anytime soon, as the distrust between Kobach and Colyer showed no signs of abating this week. On Thursday, several Kansas counties reported discrepancies between their vote tabulations and what was reflected on the secretary of state’s website. In turn, Colyer accused Kobach of giving county election officials advice that was “inconsistent with Kansas law” and called on the secretary of state to recuse himself from the process.
On Friday, Kobach said he would step aside — even though he insisted that it was purely symbolic — in a letter that blasted Colyer for “unrestrained rhetoric” that had “the potential to undermine the public’s confidence in the election process.”
(“Rich,” responded Colyer campaign spokesman Kendall Marr tersely, an allusion to Kobach’s long-standing reputation as someone who has for years claimed widespread voter fraud but never been able to prove it.)
Through all of that, the margin between the two candidates has fluctuated multiple times, and an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 provisional ballots are still being processed.
Meanwhile, Kelly wasted no time lumping Colyer and Kobach in the same boat.
“It’s clear that Republican voters are sharply divided. But what’s also clear is that both Jeff Colyer or Kris Kobach represent another four years of the failed policies of Sam Brownback,” Kelly said in a statement. “Instead of attacking and dividing our state, I will focus on bringing people together to solve problems on behalf of Kansas families.”
Kathleen Sebelius (D), who was governor from 2003 to 2009, said the chaos on the Republican side could only help Kelly in the remaining 100 days leading up to the general election.
But she disagreed with a maxim in Kansas politics that is often attributed to her — that Democrats don’t win in the state so much as Republicans lose.
“I’m not sure that quote was me, because I don’t really believe that,” Sebelius said Friday. “I’m encouraged by Laura’s very strong showing. I feel optimistic. I know Democrats can win in this state because I ran four times and I won four times.”