TOPEKA — Gov. Jeff Colyer is convinced no single move in the 2018 political chess match explained his razor-thin defeat in the Republican Party’s primary.
He has had four months to process losing by 343 votes to Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a fellow conservative who fell far short of victory in November when challenged by Democrat Laura Kelly. In such a tight primary, the governor said, the impact of every speech, debate, statement, endorsement or advertisement could be scrutinized and blamed for the ballot-box deficit.
All Colyer would have needed to do was flip 172 of Kobach’s fans.
“When it’s that close, there are a million things you could have done. Our team, we worked very hard on it. We were trying to listen to Kansans,” Colyer said in a Statehouse interview Thursday with The Topeka Capital-Journal.
It was no secret Colyer’s path to victory would be narrow. Polling consistently showed that after serving as lieutenant governor for seven years to Gov. Sam Brownback, Colyer would be held responsible for much of Brownback’s legacy.
Brownback left the U.S. Senate ad entered the governor’s office as one of the state’s most popular politicians. He existed, in terms of polling, as one of the nation’s most disliked governors. That was the price of a sputtering economy and a set of tax, budget, health care and education policies that alarmed the state’s swing voters.
“Here’s the thing,” Colyer said. “For us, I thought we ran an incredibly good campaign. Two years ago, you’d have never predicted a tie.”
The preliminary count after election night in August revealed a Kobach-Colyer gap of nearly 350 votes. When all the wrangling was over, it was closer. The final, official totals: Kobach, 128,832, or 40.62 percent; Colyer, 128,489, or 40.51 percent.
Colyer said he considered forcing a recount of primary voting among Republicans but was aware that route might have negative consequences. The risk of a challenge, in addition to political damage to Colyer if he fell short again, was that it could further divide the Republican Party at a time when it needed to be unified to counter Kelly’s campaign in November.
One week after the primary, Colyer conceded the race. In doing so, he set aside concerns about counting mail-in and provisional ballots.
“We could have gone and pushed a recount,” Colyer said. “We could have had a lot of litigation, and we probably would have had a fair chance at that, but what would it have done to Kansas? That was my concern.”
In less than one month, Kelly will begin charting a path as governor that diverges from what Colyer and Brownback tackled starting in 2011.
Colyer said casual encounters with Kansans since the August loss served to lift his spirits.
“What’s really humbling is, for the last few months, I’ll walk into stores and people will say, ‘Hey, Jeff, good job’ or, ‘You know, wish you had got across the line,’ “ he said.