Kansas Republicans’ Quandary: A Razor-Thin Race and a Possible Conflict of Interest

TOPEKA, Kan — Kris W. Kobach, the hard-charging Kansas secretary of state, has long raised concerns about the integrity of America’s elections. He has warned the president that there is rampant voter fraud, crusaded for stringent voter identification laws and tried unsuccessfully to convince a federal judge that the handful of Kansans he caught voting illegally were merely “the tip of the iceberg.”

Now Mr. Kobach, who oversees the state’s elections, finds himself in charge of a closely watched Republican gubernatorial primary that is far too close to call with all precincts reporting. Just 191 votes separated the two candidates on Wednesday. Some mail-in and provisional ballots were yet to be counted. A lengthy recount process seemed likely.

The candidate holding the razor-thin lead? Mr. Kobach himself.

This awkward coda to the long, tense primary campaign between Mr. Kobach, and the sitting governor, Jeff Colyer, threatens to further divide long-feuding Kansas Republicans. Even before Tuesday’s voting Republicans had feared that Mr. Kobach’s nomination could imperil their hold on the governorship and a pair of congressional seats in November’s election.

And now it forces Mr. Kobach toward an uncomfortable choice: Recuse himself from one of his office’s most important tasks, or oversee a sensitive and critical process where conflict of interest questions are unavoidable.

[Here are key takeaways from Tuesday’s voting.]

In a news conference at the same Topeka hotel where his election night watch party ended without a resolution, Mr. Kobach said Wednesday afternoon that he was declaring a “tentative victory” in the primary and planned to begin campaigning for the general election. But he said thousands of votes remained to be counted and conceded that Mr. Colyer could surpass him and clinch the nomination.

“It is certainly possible that the result of the race could change,” Mr. Kobach, 52, said. “But, that said, it is imperative that the Republican Party not stand still.”

Mr. Kobach did not answer directly when asked whether he planned to recuse himself from an eventual recount, but said that the actual ballot counting would be done at the county level, that his role would be merely supervisory and that there were safeguards in place to ensure the integrity of the process.

“It’s an issue that is endemic to having an elected secretary of state,” Mr. Kobach said.

Mr. Kobach and Mr. Colyer are both politically conservative, though with far different styles and personalities. Mr. Kobach, a Yale-educated lawyer, has for years burnished a national profile by drafting voter I.D. legislation and helping states and cities enact and defend restrictions on voting and immigration. He served as vice chairman of Mr. Trump’s voter fraud panel, which was disbanded after failing to find evidence of the widespread election rigging that the president claimed.

Mr. Colyer served seven years as Sam Brownback’s lieutenant governor. Since taking over as governor about six months ago, he has tried to broker compromise on a longstanding school funding debate and has signed a law allowing state-contracted adoption agencies to reject gay couples on religious grounds.

Mr. Colyer said on Wednesday morning: “Given the historically close margin of the current tabulation, the presence of thousands of as yet uncounted provisional ballots and the extraordinary problems with the count, particularly in Johnson County, this election remains too close to call.”

“We are committed to ensuring that every legal vote is counted accurately throughout the canvassing process,” he added.

Whichever candidate emerges the winner, he will face State Senator Laura Kelly, the Democratic nominee, and Greg Orman, a businessman running as an independent.

State Representative Brett Parker, a Democrat from Overland Park, said the continuing Republican primary for governor could help the Democratic nominee make inroads on the campaign trail. Mr. Parker said he believed both Republicans were beatable in November.

“Colyer is getting a little bit of a temporary pass just because he’s not Kris Kobach and maybe not as loud about his extremism,” Mr. Parker said. “But when you have a three-month general election, his record will be aired very well.”

A fierce Trump loyalist whose pugnacious approach mimics the president’s, Mr. Kobach received Mr. Trump’s endorsement on Monday, less than 24 hours before the polls opened. It was the latest in a string of endorsements the president has doled out as he increasingly weighs in on midterm races. But many Republicans, in Kansas and in Mr. Trump’s own White House, were uneasy about the president intervening in the race, fearing that a Kobach candidacy would turn off independents and centrist Republicans while energizing Democrats.

That could not only imperil the Republican hold on the governor’s office but also hand Democrats a chance to win a pair of competitive House seats in a state where Democrats see an opening in at least two districts to flip from red to blue.

One of those districts involves an open seat that is held by a Republican not seeking re-election, and encompasses Topeka and Lawrence, a more liberal university town. A former state House Democratic leader, Paul Davis, won his party’s nomination on Tuesday and will face Republican and Army veteran Steve Watkins.

In the other House district where Republicans could be vulnerable in November, Sharice Davids, a lawyer who is Native American, won the Democratic congressional primary on Wednesday in a swing district that surrounds Kansas City. She will face Representative Kevin Yoder in the general election.

Kansas has long been the reddest of red states at the federal level. Republicans hold control of the entire congressional delegation, have carried the state in every presidential election since 1964 and supported Mr. Trump in 2016 by a nearly 21-point margin.

But Democrats have repeatedly won the governorship here thanks in part to longstanding divisions between moderate and conservative Republicans.

Under Mr. Brownback, the Republican former governor who resigned early this year to become an ambassador, the state became synonymous with a conservative tax-slashing experiment that led to budget cuts and revenue shortfalls, and prompted the Republican-led state legislature to overturn many of the measures.

Some Kansas Republicans played down the prospect of a damaging schism over a potential Kobach candidacy.

“I don’t find this to be particularly divisive,” said State Representative Stephanie Clayton, a moderate Republican from the Kansas City suburbs who did not endorse either candidate. “Both of these candidates were very, very similar in ideology.”

In an interview Wednesday, she predicted a lengthy ballot-counting process and said she hoped Mr. Kobach would consider stepping aside from the recount process, but that the decision was his to make.

“I am optimistic that he will recuse himself,” Ms. Clayton said.

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