Gov. Jeff Colyer went into Tuesday preparing for a recount and potential court fight as he searched for enough votes to catch Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
He was bracing for Kobach to pad his lead in Sedgwick County. But Colyer hoped to keep it close.
And he was convinced he could claw back into the race when Johnson County’s provisional ballots came in at 4 p.m..
Instead, all the breaks Tuesday went Kobach’s way.
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By early evening, Colyer was ready to concede, his hopes of winning the GOP nomination for Kansas governor dead. At 7:30 p.m., he quit the race before all the votes had been counted.
Despite the narrow margin, Colyer’s team determined that it had become mathematically impossible for him to pull ahead, according to six Colyer associates who spoke on condition of anonymity.
An official close to Colyer said “the plan (earlier on Tuesday) had been to announce a recount given that the margin was so close” but that “after the Johnson County numbers came in it was clear that the numbers just were not in our favor.”
Wyandotte, Shawnee and Douglas Counties won’t process their votes until Thursday, and a handful of counties won’t report their final totals until next week.
Colyer, who was sworn in as governor in January, faced a Friday deadline to file for a recount, a financially precarious decision because Kansas does not have automatic recounts in close races.
“I guess the governor changed his mind at the last moment there after a conversation between him and the LG (Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann) and it became clear that the votes were just not there and it’s best to just go ahead and get out for the sake of the party,” the official said. “Those congressional seats are going to be under siege and we’ve got to get united right away.”
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have automatic recounts depending on the margin in a race, but in Kansas Colyer would have had to file a bond with the secretary of state’s office to pay for the cost of a recount. If he still trailed after a recount, he would have had to forfeit that money.
Sedgwick County struck first.
Colyer’s team had anticipated that Sedgwick County’s provisional ballots would favor Kobach, who won the county by 9 percentage points on Election Day. But Kobach won the county’s provisional ballots at double that rate, gaining an extra 94 votes, more than Colyer’s team expected.
The Sedgwick County numbers put additional pressure on Colyer’s campaign to obtain votes in Johnson County, where the governor resides.
That didn’t happen.
Kobach extended his statewide lead to 345 votes after the state’s most populous county gave him 24 more provisional votes than Colyer.
An hour before the Johnson County Board of Canvassers met to certify the county’s election results, Colyer’s legal team sent a strongly worded letter demanding that the county count an additional 153 ballots that had been disqualified because of mismatching signatures.
The letter coincided with a federal ruling Tuesday striking down a similar policy in New Hampshire.
But after the governor failed to pick up votes in his home county, the math just didn’t pencil out, even with the whisker-thin margin. Even if Colyer’s lawyers’ legal argument had carried the day, the 153 disqualified ballots would not have been enough.
Colyer likely would have pursued a recount if the margin had remained close to 100 or, better yet, dropped to double digits. But a recount was unlikely to close a 345-vote gap. And Colyer’s campaign would have had to pay poll workers for an expensive manual recount process.
One Colyer associate called Johnson County “the nail in the coffin.”
Kobach made similar conclusions about the impact of Johnson County when he celebrated his presumptive victory Wednesday afternoon on the steps of the Capitol in Topeka.
“I think that was a decisive turning point because if Colyer’s team were looking at it, my assumption would be they would be hoping for a big gain in Johnson County. So if you want to pin the turning point in that process as far as the game goes between the two campaigns, it probably was the Johnson County returns and probably also the Sedgwick County returns,” Kobach said.
Colyer’s decision to concede before all the votes across the state had been counted caught some onlookers by surprise, including Sen. John Skubal, a moderate Republican from Overland Park.
“I would have never guess that they would have given up that easy,” Skubal said.
Dragging out the primary carried risks that GOP activists would lose patience with Colyer, or that President Donald Trump would weigh in.
Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, warned on Twitter Tuesday afternoon that “drawn-out litigation” would benefit Democrats.
Colyer’s associates said the decision to withdraw from the fight was an internal decision, and party leaders in Kansas also said that Colyer was not pressured to concede.
“I know both campaigns were looking at the numbers in two of the largest counties. … I think the campaigns were both looking at those numbers and if Colyer was not able to pull ahead, it made for a tougher uphill battle,” said Kelly Arnold, the Kansas Republican state chair. “But Gov. Colyer understands the importance of the Republican Party coming together.”
Kobach’s strong performance on provisional ballots compared to his performance in Johnson County as a whole likely reflected the difference between voters who cast ballots in advance and voters who cast ballots on Election Day.
“Gov. Colyer won the advance balloting in Johnson County by a significant margin, but it was much closer on Election Day,” Kobach said.
Kobach’s Election Day totals likely show the significance of Trump’s decision to endorse Kobach on Twitter the day before the primary and record a robocall on his behalf.
Kobach called Trump’s support crucial to his victory Tuesday night, and on Wednesday he said Trump would come to Kansas to campaign for him ahead of the general election.
One source close to Colyer said the president’s tweet cost the governor the race.
“It was all Trump. We agree with Kris Kobach that absent the Trump tweet, Jeff Colyer wins this race,” the source said.
Mark Kahrs, Kansas’ Republican national committeeman, said Wednesday that Trump’s support played a key role in powering Kobach over Colyer.
“I think it’s clear that Kobach was helped immensely by the Trump endorsement at the end of the primary campaign and that Trump will be there to help Kobach and other Republicans in November,” said Kahrs, a former GOP lawmaker from Wichita. “… Trump is very popular in the state and I think that will help Republicans down ballot.”
The White House also believes Trump’s endorsement made the difference in the race, according to a person familiar with White House thinking.
Just before 9 a.m. Wednesday, Trump tweeted to celebrate Kobach’s victory: “Kris will win in November and be a great Governor.”
Around that time, the Cook Political Report, a prominent nonpartisan publication, said the race had gone from being a likely Republican race to a toss-up, despite it being a race likely to have three major candidates.
Kobach will face Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, in the general election. Johnson County businessman Greg Orman has filed signatures to appear on the ballot as an independent.
“Three-way races are complicated equations. In a state as Republican as Kansas, the GOP nominee would normally be at least a slight favorite, but Kobach is controversial enough to put this race in the Toss Up column,” Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst for the Cook Political Report, wrote Wednesday.
He will run with his GOP rival’s endorsement.
Colyer’s voice cracked Tuesday night as he delivered his concession speech a mere seven months after taking his oath as governor. He said his father had told him to always put others ahead of himself.
“As governor, I try to serve you every day and do the right thing when nobody’s looking,” Colyer said.