Since 2011, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) has successfully used his relatively obscure office to elevate himself into the national spotlight. He’s emerged as a prominent anti-immigrant voice and is a zealous advocate of the idea that voter fraud is a widespread problem, despite there being no evidence that’s true.
On Tuesday, Kansas Republicans will decide whether to make Kobach their pick for governor in the November election. While there are four major GOP candidates to choose from, the race has become a tight contest between Kobach and current Gov. Jeff Colyer (R).
Kobach’s candidacy has attracted national attention to the race in deep-red Kansas ― and some hand-wringing among national Republicans, who worry that if Kobach wins the primary, the general election could be more competitive for Democrats.
The contest also offers Kansas voters a chance to either elevate Kobach further or deal a setback to his rise, which has been shaped by a confrontational and unapologetic style of politics.
“This is one of those rare opportunities when you have a very high-profile activist politician, you actually have an opportunity to give them a platform or take that platform away in large part,” said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
“This is an opportunity for the left and mainstream Republicans to beat a firebrand and put someone more conventional in; just like for people who are more conservative, it is an opportunity to promote that fiery voice that they have,” Miller said.
This is one of those rare opportunities when you have a very high-profile activist politician, you actually have an opportunity to give them a platform or take that platform away in large part. Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas
Colyer, a plastic surgeon, was Kansas’ lieutenant governor from 2011 until January, when then-Gov. Sam Brownback (R) resigned with dismal approval ratings to take a position in the Trump administration.
While Kobach and Colyer have sparred over issues like their records on abortion and Colyer’s decision to approve court-ordered school funding, the two are both deeply conservative, despite having entirely different political styles.
While Kobach seems to relish the attention he gets from being provocative, Colyer was reluctant to attack Kobach at first and slower to find his footing on the campaign trail, airing an ad to introduce himself to voters in June, said Burdett Loomis, another political science professor at the University of Kansas.
Colyer “can’t get around Kobach from the right. He’s cast as this guy who is more responsible, which is true, and certainly the candidate of the Republican mainstream, even though he is pretty far to the right,” Loomis said. “If he were a better natural politician, I think he would benefit more from it, but he’s not especially good.”
Despite Kobach’s close ties to Donald Trump ― the president reportedly wanted him to lead the Department of Homeland Security ― the Republican Governors Association and aides have reportedly lobbied Trump not to endorse him. But the president endorsed him anyway on Monday. An internal GOP poll gives Coyler a small lead over Kobach.
“Yet again, President Trump is sewing (sic) chaos in a GOP primary against the wishes of other national Republicans. But no matter who wins tomorrow, Republicans will have a nominee in Kansas running for a third term of Sam Brownback’s policies,” Alex Japko, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association said in a statement. “Both Kris Kobach and Governor Colyer have vowed to continue the same agenda that led Kansas to record budget shortfalls, cuts to education and a faltering economy.”
National Republicans are worried Kobach would fare worse than Colyer against a Democrat in the general election. Public polling has shown Kobach trailing state Sen. Laura Kelly, a potential Democratic opponent in the fail. Colyer had a 10-point advantage over Kelly in the poll.
There have been missteps for Kobach, too. Trump tapped him to lead a commission to investigate voter fraud last year, but the panel was disbanded in January before really investigating anything.
In March, Kobach went to federal court to personally defend a law requiring Kansans to prove their citizenship when they register to vote. Not only was he unable to convince a federal judge that there were thousands of noncitizens getting registered, but Kobach was also held in contempt of court for not following a judge’s orders and ordered to pay over $26,000 in attorney’s fees.
Miller said Kobach’s performance during the trial hadn’t really shifted his poll numbers, but Ethan Corson, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, said he thought it would affect Kobach’s chances in a general election and would cause Republicans to vote for a Democratic candidate.
“Fundamentally, Kansans at their core don’t like to be embarrassed. Kris Kobach has become a national laughing stock and a national joke,” Miller said. “Even folks who would tend maybe to vote Republican understand that he would be a blot on the image of Kansas.”
Fundamentally, Kansans at their core don’t like to be embarrassed. Kris Kobach has become a national laughing stock and a national joke. Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
Kobach has also posted anemic fundraising numbers, lagging far behind Colyer. He has relied largely on money from Wink Hartman, a wealthy businessman he picked as his running mate in March. Hartman has given the campaign over $1.5 million since the beginning of the year.
On the campaign trail, Kobach has used controversy to his advantage. When some criticized his decision to ride in a July parade in an American flag jeep with a machine-gun replica, Kobach dug in and refused to apologize, calling the controversy a “snowflake meltdown.”
The episode was evocative of Trump, who frequently refuses to back away from controversy and uses it to rally supporters and attract media attention.
“People talked about that for days. It let Kobach dominate the media. It drowned out Colyer. It let him talk about his gun record,” Miller said. “Later, when Colyer got the NRA endorsement, it seemed really like an afterthought to all this press about guns that Kobach had been getting.”
Kobach also stands to benefit from the presence of two other candidates in the Republican primary field, insurance commissioner Ken Selzer and former state Sen. Jim Barnett, who could siphon votes away from Colyer. The governor recently began running an ad saying a vote for Selzer or Barnett would be a vote for Kobach.
Greg Orman, a wealthy businessman running as an independent, could also boost Kobach in the general election by taking away votes from Democrats.
Miller said he could see Kobach becoming Kansas’ next governor without winning more than 50 percent of the vote in either the primary or general election.
“It’s really like he rubbed a genie’s belly and wished for as many opponents as possible and they all magically appeared,” he said. “The way this is set up, it’s just allowing him to slide into office with no one having a clear shot at him.”
Kevin Robillard contributed reporting.
This article has been updated with Donald Trump’s endorsement of Kobach and comment from Alex Japko.