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Voters Could Elect A Democratic Governor In The Red State Of Kansas


Kansas is a red state that today could choose a Democrat for governor. The last person elected to that role, Republican Sam Brownback, was one of the least popular governors in the country when he stepped down earlier this year. Even though he's not on the ballot, Brownback is on a lot of voters' minds today. Celia Llopis-Jepsen of the Kansas News Service reports.

CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN, BYLINE: High school senior Merika Pine got to her polling site in central Topeka shortly after it opened at 7 a.m. this morning, then took a selfie outside after voting for the first time. And she cast her ballot...

MERIKA PINE: For Laura Kelly (makes whooping noise).

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: That's the Democratic candidate for governor. Kelly is a longtime state senator who campaigned on protecting education funding. Pine aspires to be a teacher, and she worries about school funding.

PINE: Money's been taken from education when really education is the most important thing. It's just so key to make sure that it's funded in the right ways.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Former Governor Sam Brownback, who now works for the Trump administration, slashed income taxes in 2012, promising a jolt to the state's economy. But that appeared to backfire and cut into funding for schools. Most of those cuts have since been rolled back. Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Secretary of State Kris Kobach campaigned to again cut state spending. That appeals to 66-year-old Stephen Loeffler, a general contractor who says the 2008 financial crisis devastated him.

STEPHEN LOEFFLER: I went through my 401(k) - well, not 401(k) - but my IRAs and inheritance and everything - lost my house, everything.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Loeffler says the tax cuts helped small businesses thrive.

LOEFFLER: As a businessman, I like Sam Brownback. He gave us the tax breaks to allow us to hire more people.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Kris Kobach campaigned against gun control, even drove around in a Jeep with a huge replica machine gun on the campaign trail. That appeals to voters like 54-year-old Larry Lewis.

LARRY LEWIS: I like the fact that he would have the guts to drive a Jeep with a gun on it in a parade and have people complaining about it.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: But voters who like Laura Kelly cite issues like expanding Medicaid. Megan Shepard and her boyfriend are raising four kids. She thinks Kelly would help state employees.

MEGAN SHEPARD: We're a two-state-employee household.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Many state employees didn't get raises for almost a decade, and pay only recently started to rise.

SHEPARD: It was nice to have a raise, but we're still behind. Our insurance is still going up.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: This summer, a federal court ruled that Kris Kobach acted unconstitutionally when he blocked tens of thousands of voter registrations and held him in contempt. That and other controversies here appear to have fueled some voter frustration with Kris Kobach. It's frustration that could help Kelly in her efforts to wrest the governorship from eight years of Republican control.

For NPR News, I'm Celia Llopis-Jepsen in Topeka.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Celia comes to the Kansas News Service after five years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. She brings in-depth experience covering schools and education policy in Kansas as well as news at the Statehouse. In the last year she has been diving into data reporting. At the Kansas News Service she will also be producing more radio, a medium she’s been yearning to return to since graduating from Columbia University with a master’s in journalism.
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