TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer is locked in a tight Republican primary race for governor Tuesday with Kris Kobach, the conservative agitator for strict immigration and voter ID laws who has advised President Donald Trump and was endorsed by him.
With nearly half the precincts counted, results Tuesday showed Colyer and Kobach close together atop of a field of seven Republican candidates.
Colyer raised more in campaign contributions than Kobach, received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association, brandished his anti-abortion credentials and had the backing of Kansas political legend Bob Dole.
Then, less than 24 hours before polls opened, Trump endorsed the Kansas secretary of state. It was not a huge surprise because Kobach was an early supporter of Trump in the presidential race, advised him during the campaign and in the White House, and served as vice chairman of a now-disbanded presidential commission on election fraud.
Kobach told reporters before polls closed that the endorsement "came just in time" and that he expected it to help him, as it has helped other candidates in other races. Trump's tweet backing Georgia Republican governor hopeful Brian Kemp vaulted him to an easy primary runoff win two weeks ago. Trump also has recently given a boost to GOP primary candidates in Florida, South Carolina and Alabama despite an overall approval rating that is underwater.
Richard Cronister, a 73-year-old retired construction company owner from Topeka, said that Trump's endorsement was important to him as he voted for Kobach. He said he thinks Trump's tax cuts have helped the economy and likes Trump's stance against illegal immigration. As for Kobach, Cronister said, "He is doing his best to stop immigration and the illegal voting. The ACLU and all those organizations are against him."
But Bruce Underwood, a 59-year-old engineer, said he voted for Colyer because he believes Kobach is "detrimental" to Kansas. He said he would likely vote for a Democrat in the general election because Republicans aren't standing up to Trump.
"Trump is supporting Kobach and I just can't stand Trump, he is not good for our country," Underwood said.
Like the president, Kobach promises a no-apologies style, telling voters repeatedly: "I don't back down. I double down." His use of a Jeep with a replica gun mounted on top during campaign stops at local parades this summer prompted backlash. Kobach called his critics "snowflakes" and continued to use the Jeep.
Kobach's penchant for provoking outrage could serve him well in a crowded seven-candidate Republican primary Tuesday. Kansas does not hold runoff elections, and Kobach's conservative base could allow him to win the primary with a third or less of the vote.
Some Democrats hope that is exactly what will happen, betting Kobach is such a lightning rod that a Democrat could snatch a red state victory in November.
Democrats picked 14-year state Sen. Laura Kelly of Topeka in the party's first contested primary for governor since 1998. She defeated former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, who had sought to be the first-ever black nominee, and ex-Kansas Agriculture Secretary Joshua Svaty, who had stressed his youth and potential rural appeal.
The mild-mannered Colyer is seeking a full four-year term after moving up from lieutenant governor in January when unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback took an ambassador position in Trump's administration. His defeat would mark the first primary loss by a sitting Kansas governor since 1956 and the first nationally since Hawaii's Neil Abercrombie lost a primary in 2014.
Kobach attracted Donald Trump Jr. and gun-rights "Cat Scratch Fever" rocker Ted Nugent for fundraisers yet couldn't keep up with Colyer in raising cash. But Kobach's running mate, a wealthy Wichita businessman, loaned their campaign more than $1.5 million over four months.
Kobach got a strange boost in July when the American Civil Liberties Union unleashed a $200,000 voter education campaign against his positions on immigration, voting rights and other issues. He relished the attacks and said if elected governor he would be the group's "worst nightmare."
In the Democratic race, the 38-year-old Svaty pitched himself as the candidate of the future in his race against the 68-year-old Kelly and the 61-year-old Brewer. He also stressed his ties to his rural hometown of Ellsworth.
But as a legislator before becoming agriculture secretary, Svaty had an anti-abortion voting record and refused to put a label on his views even after expressing support, during a recent forum, for women making their own health care decisions.
Besides Colyer and Kobach, the other major GOP candidates are Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer and former state Sen. Jim Barnett, a Topeka physician.
While the marquee race in Kansas this year is for governor, voters are also picking candidates to contest two House seats that Democrats are hoping to flip in November.