Kansas Secretary of State’s GOP primary race heated between incumbent Kris Kobach, Scott Morgan

07/27/2014 10:30 PM

07/29/2014 11:33 AM

The Republican primary for Kansas secretary of state is a wicked brew.

Ingredients include a dash of rocker Ted Nugent, a pinch of comic books, a helping of voting rights and a cup of name calling.

The race between Republican incumbent Kris Kobach and challenger Scott Morgan is boiling into a bitter campaign as the Aug. 5 primary nears.

Kobach labels Morgan — a former Lawrence school board member — as a Democrat in Republican’s clothing. He’s not-so-subtly hinted that Morgan should leave the Republican Party.

Morgan says the incumbent has turned the secretary of state’s office into a circus in pursuit of his own political agenda while drumming up media attention. He called Kobach a “partisan hack.”

Seeking a second term, Kobach is a known quantity to Kansans, especially after gaining national prominence in a usually quiet office that oversees state elections and business filings.

Over the years, the secretary of state’s office has generally been filled by politicians who didn’t climb to higher office — with former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves being a notable exception.

But Kobach has been anything but a garden-variety secretary of state, engendering passions among supporters and detractors alike.

He won passage of a controversial new voter identification law in Kansas. He fought illegal immigration on a national scale, defending state and local laws that get tough with undocumented immigrants.

Kobach challenged the federal government over gun regulations, pushing a law whose constitutionality has been challenged in court. He even joined up with Nugent in 2011 to lobby for shooting wild hogs from helicopters in Texas.

“He’s arguably the most activist secretary of state Kansas has ever seen,” said University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis.

For his part, Kobach is unabashed about all the causes he has taken up since he was elected secretary of state.

“A lot of these are core constitutional issues that every statewide elected official should be concerned with,” Kobach said.

Kobach entered the primary with $125,000 in the bank and on Monday reported raising $105,000 more this year.

Morgan, a former aide to U.S. Sens. Nancy Kassebaum and Bob Dole, raised about $21,000 for the campaign.

A SurveyUSA poll done last month showed Kobach getting 61 percent of the vote against Morgan.

But Morgan picked up support from places he didn’t expect such as the influential Kansas Livestock Association, which represents 5,600 cattlemen across the state.

The group says Kobach strays beyond the traditional roles of secretary of state by taking up issues such as immigration and blocking federal environmental protections of the lesser prairie chicken.

“We really want someone who’s going to do the job of secretary of state and leave those sorts of things to the folks who control those areas,” livestock association lobbyist Aaron Popelka said.

The group butted heads with Kobach over his efforts to crack down on illegal immigration in Kansas and a law aimed at stopping the federal government from protecting the prairie chicken.

Popelka said the association believes immigration should be left to Congress. He also said Kobach wanted the prairie chicken bill worded in such a way that it could have hampered ranchers’ ability to get their federal environmental permits.

Kobach wasn’t surprised by the association’s support for Morgan. “The KLA openly defends the hiring of illegal aliens” — something the group hotly disputes — “and the KLA has long opposed my efforts to enforce immigration laws,” he said.

The association says it counsels its members to comply with all federal immigration laws.

As far as Kobach is concerned, the primary could preview the general election against Democrat Jean Schodorf.

“This is an unusual primary where you have a challenger who is taking pretty hard left positions,” Kobach said.

The incumbent pointed to Morgan’s positions supporting abortion rights, and opposition to requiring voter identification at the polls and laws allowing people to carry concealed weapons.

Morgan conceded he’s more liberal than Kobach but said none of those issues should relate to the secretary of state’s race.

Those partisan issues, he said, compromise the secretary of state’s ability to impartially preside over elections.

Morgan charges that the Republican incumbent neglects his job as he works on other issues, especially the immigration litigation he’s taken on in Arizona, Texas, Nebraska and Pennsylvania.

“He makes tens of thousands of dollars representing clients throughout the country on issues unrelated to Kansas,” Morgan said. “You can’t serve two masters.”

Last month, Morgan chided Nugent’s Facebook endorsement of Kobach. Nugent described Kobach as a “backstrap BloodBrother who’s a dear pig killin friend of mine.”

The “Motor City Madman” stirs his own brand of controversy, including earlier this year when he referred to President Barack Obama as a “subhuman mongrel.” He later apologized.

Morgan said the Facebook post was another sign that Kobach lived in some kind of “bizarro world” where everything is the opposite of what’s expected.

“The self-appointed guardian of state sovereignty needs to stop shooting pigs from helicopters in Texas with Ted Nugent and start focusing on his job in Kansas,” Morgan said in a statement.

Kobach said he has always kept his outside work on immigration separate from his work as secretary of state. The office, he says, is humming regardless of his outside work.

He said it’s his choice how he wants to spend his free time, whether it’s playing golf on an afternoon, writing a legal brief late at night or hanging with a classic rock star.

No one from the secretary of state’s office, he said, is involved in his outside legal work. “The day-to-day workings of the office are extremely efficient,” Kobach said.

Kobach said 85 percent of the calls placed to the office’s business services division are resolved within five minutes. He said 95 percent of the calls are handled within 10 minutes.

Kobach’s biggest achievement so far — and maybe his most controversial — was getting the Legislature to require voter IDs at the polls and proof of citizenship to register to vote.

Kobach said the law was needed to prevent voter fraud, a claim disputed by critics who don’t believe fraud is widespread.

Morgan accuses Kobach of erecting hurdles to voting. He points to the 19,000 would-be voters whose registrations were held up because they didn’t present documents such as a birth certificate or a passport proving their citizenship.

Kobach finds the criticism “ridiculous.”

He said prospective voters can still register if they provide the required documents. He says registering is as easy as texting a picture of the documents to the local voter registration office.

The primary offers voters a clear choice, Kobach said.

“Do they want someone who is going to keep our citizenship rules in place,” he said, “or do they want someone who will try and break them down?”

To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to bcooper@kcstar.com.

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