Law professor Kris Kobach battled into a dead heat with ex-fighter pilot Adam Taff on Tuesday in a rugged campaign for the GOP nomination in Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District.
Trailing in the polls during most of the campaign, Kobach held an 87-vote lead over Taff late Tuesday night, according to complete but unofficial results. Patricia Lightner, a state representative from Overland Park since 1998, was a distant third.
Kobach finished with 38,124 votes, or 44 percent, to 38,037 votes, or 44 percent for Taff. Lightner came in third with 9,944 votes, or about 12 percent of the votes cast.
The final outcome still hangs in the balance. Outstanding are an unknown number of so-called provisional ballots, given to voters when there is a question about their qualifications.
Election officials will need to examine the ballots to determine which should be counted, a process that could take until next week and tip the primary election one way or the other. It was not known late Tuesday how many provisional ballots were cast.
Appearing with his wife and daughter before cheering supporters at the Overland Park Marriott, Kobach made a tentative claim to victory.
“It appears that this race, although close and not officially over, it does appear we have a victory in hand,” Kobach said to rousing applause followed by chants of “Ko-Bach, Ko-bach, Ko-bach.”
Kobach told supporters that usually when provisional votes are counted they don’t radically change the results. “We expect that the results will hold,” he said.
Down the street at the Overland Park Sheraton, Taff wasn’t ready to concede anything to his rival, whom he has battled fiercely, spending more than a half million dollars in the primary. He told supporters there were still ballots to be counted.
“Folks, it’s going to be awhile,” Taff said. “I hope you had a good night tonight and stay with us for the next several days.”
Kobach and Taff were wrestling for the right to face U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, a Democrat who has been elected three times in a heavily Republican district that includes all of Johnson and Wyandotte counties and part of Douglas County.
Taff was looking for a rematch with Moore after coming out of political obscurity two years ago. Short on money and help from the national Republican Party, he won a heated primary in 2002 and came within a couple of percentage points of upending Moore.
On Tuesday, Moore watched the primary results come in at the Woodside Tennis and Health Club in Westwood.
Observers of this year’s primary said they had seen bitter 3rd District campaigns in the past, but none as personal as this one.
Taff and Kobach lobbed charges and counter-charges, largely leaving Lightner alone. With little money to spend, Lightner couldn’t take the offensive, but she did run last-minute ads portraying Kobach and Taff as little kids arguing with each other.
Becoming increasingly acrimonious with each passing week, Taff and Kobach accused each other of lying or misleading voters on issues ranging from a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to abortion to whom President Bush supported.
In recent days, Taff and Kobach hit the phone lines, sending out thousands of automated phone calls arguing over Bush’s involvement in the campaign. The White House didn’t endorse a candidate.
Kobach mounted a fierce ad campaign trying to bill Taff as a liberal, saying he supported “the radical gay rights agenda” and that he wanted to give amnesty to undocumented immigrants.
The negative tenor angered some voters. Two years ago, Lorita Stilley of Overland Park voted for Taff. Not this year. She voted for Lightner.
“I kind of like Taff, but I think he got caught up in the negative campaign,” Stilley said after casting her ballot Tuesday afternoon at the Overland Park Fire Training Center. “I’m tired of all the negative campaigning.”
Some voters who cast ballots for Kobach said they perceived Taff as the aggressor in the campaign.
“He seemed really real,” Ann Oelschlaeger of Overland Park said of Kobach. “We got the opponent’s fliers. They were so negative. They just attacked Kobach and didn’t say what he stood for.”
Kobach took the initiative in the campaign, trying to stake out the conservative position on abortion, telling a Republican women’s organization in April that he always had opposed abortion rights.
Taff, who opposes an outright ban on abortion, refused to cede the issue. He hammered away at Kobach’s honesty, pointing out that four years ago Kobach filled out a questionnaire saying he supported abortion rights in most cases.
Some voters said they understood how someone could change their mind and were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“I think he had a personal thing happen to him with his wife and his child and I think that caused him to change and that’s legitimate,” said Jim Tinsley of Overland Park.
Taff pressed the honesty issue with Kobach’s self-professed opposition to taxes, noting that at as an Overland Park city councilman Kobach voted to raise the city’s tax on new development.
Taff said throughout the campaign he would vote for an amendment banning same-sex marriage, but questioned whether one was needed immediately.
Kobach used those comments to accuse Taff of not supporting a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.