Topeka Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday became the first Kansas Democrat to win an open seat for governor in more than 65 years.
The current insurance commissioner defeated Republican Tim Shallenburger 53 percent to 45 percent with 87 percent of the precincts counted.
"Tonight we celebrate victory and the hope that change will bring," Sebelius told a wildly cheering crowd of about 400 people in her victory speech, "and tomorrow we are going to get right to work to make that change a reality."
Sebelius later told reporters she would meet today with Gov. Bill Graves to discuss the state's budget crisis.
The 54-year-old mother of two claimed victory about 10:30 p.m., shortly after Shallenburger conceded defeat to supporters gathered in a hotel across town.
Excitement among Sebelius backers began building as cell phones jingled throughout the ballroom at the Topeka Holidome, site of the Kansas Democratic Party election watch. The callers were alerting party stalwarts that the GOP conservative who failed to unite Republicans was throwing in the towel.
Sebelius will succeed Graves, a Republican who was prohibited by term limits from seeking a third term in office.
When she takes office in January she will become only the second female elected governor in Kansas history. The first was Joan Finney.
'Let you down'
For Shallenburger, it was a bitter defeat. Though he trailed in the polls throughout the campaign, many thought he would catch Sebelius because of the sizable Republican majority in Kansas and an avalanche of social conservatives flocking to him because of his anti-abortion and pro-gun views.
"We're sorry we let you down tonight," he told disappointed supporters. "We should hope and pray Kansas is better tomorrow than it was last week."
Shallenburger, who served in the Kansas House before becoming state treasurer, told backers he would return to his home in southeast Kansas and consider his options.
"It's been a great 16-year ride," Shallenburger said of his time in state government.
Graves was not at the Republican gathering. Administration spokesmen said he spent the evening at Cedar Crest, the official governor's residence.
Sebelius, who outspent Shallenburger 2-to-1, apparently gained advantage from the moderate-conservative split in the Republican Party. During her campaign, she strictly adhered to a message of support for public schools coupled with a promise of fiscal responsibility.
Shallenburger won Johnson County, a Kansas City suburb and a Republican stronghold, but Sebelius did well elsewhere, even in some rural counties usually strong for the GOP.
Tough job ahead
Now Sebelius faces the tough job of mending the deepest budget gap in state government history and a Republican-dominated Legislature skeptical of her promises.
State revenues are expected to be about $800 million short of spending commitments for the next fiscal year. Budget experts meeting Tuesday said the state must cut about $255 million almost immediately from the current $4.4 billion budget to keep accounts from falling into the red.
Sebelius has promised to increase funding to public schools and find savings throughout the budget with a top-to-bottom performance audit.
The race featured two seasoned politicians who came from disparate backgrounds but similarly climbed the state government ladder starting in 1986, when both were elected to the Kansas House.
Sebelius, 54, was born and reared in a political family in Ohio. Her father, John Gilligan, served in Congress and was governor of Ohio. He joined her on the stage as she delivered her victory speech. Sebelius was educated in Catholic schools and later met and married a Kansan, Gary Sebelius, whose father was a longtime congressman in the Sunflower State. The couple moved to Topeka and reared two sons, both of whom are in college.
Sebelius soon got involved in local and state politics.
Shallenburger, 47, grew up in Baxter Springs in the southeast corner of Kansas in a working-class family. His father was an electrician.
Shallenburger went to public schools and college briefly, but then started working, eventually landing at a bank. One day he was reading stories about environmental contamination in his hometown and decided to run for the Legislature. He won in a district that traditionally was represented by Democrats.
When they served in the House, Sebelius became a committee chairwoman for a brief period when Democrats were in the majority. Shallenburger, rising from the conservative wing of the GOP, became House speaker and won the praise of Republicans and Democrats for opening up the legislative process and making the rules of the House more fair.
In 1994, Sebelius left the House to run for state insurance commissioner and stunned Kansas politics by winning the first time a Democrat won the office in more than 100 years.
She is credited with modernizing a dusty agency and bringing it out from under the influence of the insurance industry. During her tenure there she refused to take campaign funds from insurers, and this year she blocked the proposed merger of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas, the state's largest health insurer, with an Indiana-based insurance company.
In 1998, Shallenburger, after helping engineer record tax cuts in the Legislature, left the House and successfully ran for state treasurer. That same year, Sebelius won re-election as insurance commissioner.
Early in the race
As the 2002 election season approached, there was little doubt Sebelius, the only statewide Democratic officeholder, would run for governor.
But Kansas Republicans, as usual, were twisted in inter-party fighting between conservatives and moderates. Shallenburger emerged as the conservative Republican candidate and Atty. Gen. Carla Stovall, the moderate Republican candidate.
But in a bizarre turn, Stovall dropped out of the race, saying she lost interest in running. Shallenburger came from behind to defeat Wichita Mayor Bob Knight, Senate President Dave Kerr of Hutchinson and Dan Bloom, a former Eudora school superintendent, in the GOP primary.
That set up the Shallenburger-Sebelius matchup.
From the outset, the two provided few details about how they would remedy the budget mess, instead pounding on what became familiar themes Shallenburger's anti-tax promise and Sebelius' promise to improve school funding.
As the campaign progressed, Shallenburger accused Sebelius of being soft on crime, while Sebelius accused Shallenburger of negative campaigning and failing to support schools. The final days were dominated by anti-abortion advocates who attacked Sebelius' pro-choice position.