For the second time in two years, voters in Kansas have handed a stinging defeat to Phill Kline, an anti-abortion crusader who made his reputation by attempting to prosecute the state's abortion providers, first as state attorney general, and then, after he lost re-election to that post, as a district attorney in suburban Kansas City.
With all of the vote counted, Steve Howe trounced Kline by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent in unofficial returns to select the Republican candidate for district attorney in Johnson County, Kan., a well-off suburb of Kansas City. Howe garnered 33,260 votes to Kline’s 22,188, according to final unofficial returns.
Howe will face Democrat Rick Guinn in the Nov. 4 general election.
Abortion played a key role in the race because Kline is the first prosecutor since Roe v. Wade to file criminal charges against a Planned Parenthood clinic.
Abortion opponents from outside Kansas are thought to have spent more than $100,000 to keep Kline's candidacy alive.
At a gathering at the Sheraton Hotel with his wife and children at his side, Howe thanked his supporters and called on Republicans to come together for the November election.
"We need to put politics behind us," he said, "and get back to putting away the bad guys …We want to put out no-vacancy signs for the criminals coming into our county."
Meanwhile, Kline stood in a hallway at the Sheraton and thanked his supporters as they filed by.
"There are some causes that are worth losing for, and in that there is no defeat," Kline said.
Kline said that people "in this community see me in a single dimension, so there was a hurdle to overcome and we just couldn't get over it."
Guinn said he was looking forward to the fall campaign.
"The voters have rejected Kline's leadership," Guinn said. "They want an office led by a veteran prosecutor, not a politician with a personal agenda, and my 27 years of successfully prosecuting dangerous criminals makes me the most qualified candidate for the job."
During the campaign for district attorney, Howe cast himself as the "career prosecutor" and Kline as the "career politician."
Howe contended that politics has played too great a role in the decision-making process of the office under Kline. Also, he said, Kline spent too much time away from the office on activities related to abortion.
Howe said he also opposes abortion. If elected in November, Howe said, he will analyze the criminal charges against the Planned Parenthood clinic in Overland Park as he would any case. Then, he said, he would proceed as the evidence and the law dictate.
Howe has 18 years of experience as a prosecutor, with the last 16 in the Johnson County district attorney's office. Kline fired Howe and six other prosecutors when he took office in January 2007.
Steve Cloud of Lenexa, a national committeeman for the Kansas Republican Party, said he thinks there might have been a negative backlash from all of the out-of-state dollars that were spent on Kline's behalf.
Many conservative party leaders took a "hands-off" approach to Kline, Cloud said, and declined to endorse him. He said he had expected Republicans to be ready for a fresh face.
Kline, who said he was not a one-issue candidate, campaigned on his record as a district attorney and as state attorney general. He successfully prosecuted a cold-case murder this year and recently won a conviction in a capital murder case.
Kline began investigating Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri and a Wichita abortion clinic five years ago while attorney general. The Kansas Supreme Court, however, rejected most of the subpoenas he filed in seeking records from the clinics and Kline lost his re-election bid.
He was installed as Johnson County district attorney after that loss, however, under a provision of Kansas law that leaves to the majority party in a jurisdiction the right to fill a vacant office.