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Well-Known Republicans In Kansas Back Democratic Candidate For Governor


American voters are choosing more than the U.S. Congress this fall. They also choose state legislatures and many governors. Democrats have a chance to gain back some of the governorships they have lost to Republicans. Only 16 of 50 governors right now are Democrats. Republicans are working to defend their gains, including in the very red state of Kansas. Here's Jim McLean of the Kansas News Service.

JIM MCLEAN, BYLINE: Laura Kelly is a veteran member of the Kansas Senate and the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor. She's doing her best to keep the memory of former Republican Governor Sam Brownback fresh in the minds of Kansas voters, particularly the memory of how the income tax cuts that Brownback championed crashed the budget and forced cuts in funding for schools, highways and health care.


LAURA KELLY: We can either go backward and repeat the last eight years of the Brownback devastation, or we can elect a governor who will work like the devil to rebuild our state.


MCLEAN: Kelly isn't running against Brownback, who's moved on to the Trump administration. But in debates like this one at the Kansas State Fair, she misses no opportunity to tie her Republican opponent, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, to the former governor and his policies.


KELLY: Kris Kobach is making it very clear where he will take us as a state. He will take us back to the devastation that we have just lived through.

MCLEAN: Kelly's getting help from some unexpected sources. Some big-name Republicans, at least big to Kansans, are jumping party lines to support her.


BILL GRAVES: Laura Kelly is the only Democrat I have ever endorsed for public office.

MCLEAN: Moderate Republican Bill Graves was governor of Kansas from 1995 to 2002.


GRAVES: Laura, to me, has all the qualities, all the capabilities that we're looking for to lead the state during this difficult time.

MCLEAN: A week after Graves endorsed Kelly, so did GOP stalwart Nancy Kassebaum. She represented Kansas for 17 years in the U.S. Senate and says Kobach's promise to restore the Brownback tax cuts convinced her to go public.

NANCY KASSEBAUM: We've just simply tried so hard to say we were going to cut taxes, and instead, we let a lot of things fall by the wayside.

MCLEAN: A spokesperson for the Kobach campaign dismissed the endorsements, calling Graves and Kassebaum, quote, "tired has-beens" and pointed to this as the endorsement that matters.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to introduce the next governor of Kansas, Kris Kobach.


MCLEAN: Kobach says President Trump's initial endorsement, delivered on Twitter the day before the primary, might have been the difference maker in his razor-thin victory over the incumbent governor. And he's counting on the president's recent visit to Kansas to energize his base in the final weeks of a general election campaign that's coming down to the wire.


KRIS KOBACH: To put it simply, I want to do for Kansas what President Trump has done for America.


MCLEAN: Polls show Kobach and Kelly virtually deadlocked. That means the race could be decided by independent Greg Orman. He's a wealthy businessman from the Kansas City suburbs who's hoping to exploit what he believes is widespread voter frustration.

GREG ORMAN: As I travel through the state of Kansas, I find, talking to Republicans and talking to Democrats, you know, sort of a broad dissatisfaction with what's going on right now and the fact that we don't seem to be solving problems. We seem to be having food fights.

MCLEAN: In 2014, with no Democrat in the race, Orman threw a scare into Republican U.S. Senator Pat Roberts. But this time around, he's polling in single digits. Even so, says former Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius, that could be enough to tilt the race.

KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: He certainly can be a spoiler. Greg Orman could elect Kris Kobach governor, unless Kansas voters are paying a lot of attention.

MCLEAN: Paying attention to the likes of Graves and Kassebaum, who are urging moderate Republicans in particular to cross party lines for Kelly. For NPR News, I'm Jim McLean in Topeka.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTNORMAL'S "BACK TO THE NORM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration between KMUW and other public media stations across Kansas.
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