By TIM CARPENTER
The Topeka Capital-Journal
LAWRENCE -- Gov. Sam Brownback narrowly won re-election Tuesday night against Democratic challenger Paul Davis in a contest that affirmed Kansas voters preferred retention of the Republican despite anxiety about economic growth and future funding of public schools.
The governor carried vote-rich Johnson County and hammered Davis in rural areas of the sharp-red state to earn a second term in a result that conflicted with months of polling showing Brownback in trouble. Shortly after 11 p.m., Davis conceded the race to the governor.
With about 80 percent of precincts reporting, Brownback had 49 percent of more than 700,000 votes cast. Davis held 47 percent. Libertarian Keen Umbehr trailed with 4 percent. The tallies: Brownback, 349,564; Davis, 333,641; Umbehr, 27,862.
Brownback said the outcome would demonstrate the state's voters believed his economic policies of state income tax reduction and restrained government spending should be allowed to proceed.
"At this point in time, people choose a path," the Topeka governor said. "Are you going to go a liberal paid with Paul Davis? Or are you going to go a conservative path? And that's the two choices you have at this point in time. Most Kansans are mostly center-right. That's where a big majority is."
Davis, a 12-year member of the Kansas House, had expressed confidence while polls were still open that he would close out a victory against a GOP household name in Kansas. Davis sought to forge a new moderate Republican and Democratic coalition capable of overtaking Brownback in a statewide contest.
"Moments ago, I called Governor Brownback and congratulated him on winning a second term," Davis said. "Sam Brownback is a man of conviction, who loves this state dearly. His lifelong dedication to public service is remarkable and I congratulate him again now on his hard-fought victory."
"This was an intense and very competitive campaign where a clear division existed between what we thought Kansas needed to do to prosper in the coming years. But the campaign is over. We have very real challenges to face as a state. And the only way we can overcome these challenges is to face them together," Davis said.
Umbehr's appeal to voters disenchanted with major-party options left contenders to battle over 95 percent of the vote and raised the prospect of someone being elected governor without receiving 50 percent of votes rendered.
Brownback endeavored during the general election to convince voters the administration's investment in supply-side economics -- a program that forecasts huge job growth driven by income tax cuts -- would blossom in a second term. The state cut the top individual rate 26 percent and exempted owners of 190,000 businesses from income taxes. The jury is still out on the strategy as state tax revenue has lagged behind forecasts in five of the past seven months.
He spoke of his work privatizing Medicaid, reforming the state pension plan, seeking judicial reform and adopting restricts on abortion. He sought credit for advancing the cause of technical education and starting dialogue on preserving water resources in Kansas.
In return, Davis framed the governor's aggressive tax cuts as an overreach undermining the state's ability to finance core functions of education, transportation and services for the disabled and elderly.
Davis and Brownback praised their respective strategies for driving supporters to the polls. The governor appealed to his social conservative base, while Davis sought bipartisan support from moderate Republicans and Democrats.
"We've got a tremendous ground operation," said Davis, a 42-year-old Lawrence attorney. "We've been building this for months. It's thousands of people who have come to volunteer. I think that's indicative of the feeling that's out there in Kansas right now."
Brownback said he was never convinced polling that showed him trailing Davis was accurate.
"We've had a ground game like we never had before," the governor said. "It's showing up in the early vote totals.
In 2012, Brownback ignored objections from Republicans and Democrats to sign an ambitious income tax reform bill. The law ended taxation of income among owners of 190,000 businesses -- farmers, doctors, lawyers -- and dropped individual income tax rates.
He made enemies in the August 2012 primary by working with conservative special-interest groups to defeat a blacklist of one-half dozen moderate Republican senators. Those stronger conservative GOP majorities in the House and Senate helped push through elements of the governor's agenda.
Brownback, unhappy by what he viewed as activist judges, also took on the judicial branch. He signed a bill in 2013 eliminating the merit-based judge selection system for the Kansas Court of Appeals. Now, governors control that court's nomination process.
In April, the governor signed a bill that increased funding of K-12 schools and eliminated due-process hearings available to experienced teachers notified of their dismissal.