TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas voters were deciding Tuesday whether to promote to governor Kris Kobach, a strong ally of President Donald Trump, who wants to crack down on immigrants living in the state illegally and resume conservative tax-cutting policies from earlier in the decade that critics labeled a failure.
Republican Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, says if elected he would slash spending and seek tax cuts like those championed by unpopular former Gov. Sam Brownback.
His Democratic opponent, state Sen. Laura Kelly, has made her opposition to the ill-fated 2012-13 experiment in slashing state income taxes the centerpiece of her campaign in a tight race. She was part of a bipartisan effort in 2017 that reversed most of the tax cuts to drag state finances out of a gaping hole.
"By then, Kansans understood the damage that was done," Kelly said between last-minute campaign stops. "And they wanted nothing more to do with that."
A wildcard in the race is Independent candidate Greg Orman, a Kansas City-area businessman, who Democrats fear could take enough votes from Kelly to hand the election to Kobach.
Kansas is considered a deep red state with party registration 44 percent Republican and 25 percent Democratic. But its dominant Republican Party sometimes splits between moderates and conservatives, leaving an opening for a Democrat to peel off disaffected GOP voters. In recent decades the state has alternated between Republican and Democratic governors.
That GOP rift emerged this year with the nomination of Kobach, who has concentrated on motivating his conservative base rather than wooing moderate voters.
"The way we win is, we rack up our numbers," Kobach told a get-out-the-vote rally in Topeka. "If Republicans vote in big numbers, we win a statewide election. It's just that simple."
Kobach has built a national profile as an advocate of tough immigration policies and strict voter identification laws. He has advised Trump and served as vice chairman of Trump's since-disbanded commission on voter fraud. He narrowly defeated Gov. Jeff Colyer in the GOP primary in August after Trump ignored some of his advisers and tweeted an endorsement of Kobach.
Trump carried the state by 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential race and had a rally to help Kobach's campaign in October. Donald Trump Jr. had two fundraising events for him.
Kobach delights in provoking critics with stunts such as using a red-white-and-blue jeep with a replica machine gun mounted on top in community parades to emphasize his support for the 2nd amendment to the Constitution.
Despite the painful experience of the Brownback tax cuts, he has promised to shrink the size of government so that the state could resume cutting taxes. He has bristled at Kelly's suggestion that he would revive the Brownback tax experiment and top it, arguing that he would be more aggressive about reducing government spending.
Kelly wants to increase spending, not reduce it, saying more money is needed for higher education, early childhood education and mental health services.
She also embraced a plan this year from the Legislature to phase in a $548 million increase in spending on public schools in response to Kansas Supreme Court decisions in an education funding lawsuit filed in 2010. Kobach criticized the court and suggested that lawmakers had paid a "king's ransom" to comply with the court order.
Like Trump, Kobach has stressed immigration issues in the run-up to the election. He wants policies designed to push immigrants living in Kansas illegally out of the state. Kelly said Kobach's immigration policies would hurt the state's economy, particularly in western Kansas, which depends on immigrant workers for the meatpacking industry.
Orman had hoped to build on an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2014 as an independent candidate that brought him national attention. But his gubernatorial campaign never gained enough traction to make him more than a potential spoiler.