Disputed primary pits low-key governor against flashy rival
In a deeply conservative state where some fellow Republicans built national reputations, Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer is known mostly as a low-key policy wonk and once compared himself to the “Star Trek” character Mr. Spock.
The 58-year-old former surgeon is locked in a remarkably close GOP gubernatorial primary with Kris Kobach in a battle of contrasting political styles. Kobach, the controversial secretary of state, leads by just 206 votes out of more than 314,000 cast in last week’s primary.
Colyer, who hails from suburban Kansas City, ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2002 before being elected to the Kansas House in 2006, then to the state Senate in 2008. He became Sam Brownback’s running mate in Brownback’s 2010 bid for governor and spent seven years serving as his loyal lieutenant.
When Brownback left office in January to become the Trump administration’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, Colyer rose to governor.
As a legislator, he helped craft health care bills. As lieutenant governor, he supervised a 2013 initiative that privatized Kansas’ Medicaid health coverage for the needy.
It was a role, assigned by Brownback, that fit Colyer. In an Associated Press interview last year, he described himself in classic “Star Trek” terms as a first-officer Spock to Brownback’s Captain Kirk.
“We’re working for the same goals,” he said.
By contrast, the 52-year-old Kobach recently rode in a vehicle with a replica machine gun mounted on it at parades. When some people complained, Kobach referred to the criticism as a “snowflake meltdown.” He has earned a national reputation for his strong stance against illegal immigration and his fervent support of voter ID laws.
President Donald Trump last year named Kobach vice chairman of his administration’s election-fraud commission, which found no evidence to support Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election. In June, a federal judge found the Kansas voter ID law championed by Kobach unconstitutional.
Bruce Underwood, 59, an engineer, voted for Colyer but said he will probably vote Democratic in the general election. He called Kobach “detrimental” to Kansas and did not like the fact that Trump endorsed him.
“I want to get enough Democrats in there. They will stand up to Trump,” Underwood said.
But 53-year-old math teacher Tanya Hein voted for Kobach in part because Trump endorsed him, which she called “icing on the cake.”
Some who cast ballots for Colyer said they were really voting against Kobach.
Brent Talbert, a 49-year-old meat cutter, said he favors voter ID but called Kobach’s focus on the topic “overkill.”
Colyer, a married father of three daughters who was a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, has for three decades traveled abroad for medical relief missions. He has worked and trained local doctors in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Iraq and other countries.
He continued to see occasional patients as governor.
“It helps me be a better governor because I’m dealing with people where they are, in some of their most difficult times,” he told the AP earlier this year.
Colyer remained loyal to Brownback, even when budget problems that followed the governor’s aggressive income tax cuts caused his approval levels to plummet. Lawmakers in 2017 rolled back most of those cuts.
Colyer skirted legal trouble after making three $500,000 loans to Brownback’s and his own re-election campaign in 2013 and 2014. Two of the loans were paid back within days.
Experts said the loans were unusually large, and the timing of the payback was strange. Democrats speculated they might have been timed to inflate campaign-finance reports. They came as the Republican governor faced the real prospect of losing to a well-financed Democratic challenger, Paul Davis.
Brownback’s office said the loans were in compliance with Kansas law and ethics regulations. A grand jury investigation ended with no criminal charges.