A witness for Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach faced questions Monday in federal court about his role in former Gov. Sam Brownback’s decision to tie his 2014 opponent to a crime rampage in Wichita that left five people dead.
Kobach’s legal team offered Pat McFerron, an Oklahoma-based pollster and Republican consultant, as an expert witness Monday as part of the federal trial in Kansas City, Kan., that will determine whether thousands of people can vote in November when Kansas chooses a new governor.
McFerron conducted a poll for Kobach’s office that found that 98 percent of Kansans can readily access a birth certificate or passport, documents that satisfy a state requirement to prove citizenship before you can register to vote.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys scrutinized his methodology and his past work for Republican candidates, including Brownback, whose 2010 and 2014 campaigns for governor paid McFerron’s firm a total of roughly $165,000.
Mark Johnson, a Kansas City attorney representing a University of Kansas student suing Kobach’s office, asked McFerron if he advised Brownback’s 2014 campaign to tie Democrat Paul Davis to the Carr brothers and their 2000 crime spree.
During the final weeks of the campaign, Brownback’s campaign aired controversial television ads linking Davis to the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the death sentences for Reginald and Jonathan Carr.
“Remember the Carr brothers? Five savage murders. Caught. Prosecuted. Death row. Then liberal judges in Topeka changed that and Paul Davis stands with these judges, who let the Carr brothers off the hook,” the ads said.
The decision was later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court and the death penalty was reinstated for both men. At no point were the Carrs released from prison.
Many analysts have pointed to the ads as one reason Brownback won Sedgwick County in 2014, which helped carry him to re-election, but the ads also faced a wave of criticism and accusations of race-baiting.
Former Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston called the ads reprehensible.
McFerron didn’t absolutely affirm his role in the strategy.
Johnson read from a line from a strategy memo that said when voters were reminded about the Carr case and Davis’ relationship with the Supreme Court, they would break for Brownback by a 5-to-1 ratio.
McFerron said it sounded like something he may have written.
Kobach’s office objected to the line of questioning as irrelevant to the case, but Johnson argued it was related to McFerron’s credibility.
Davis, now a candidate for Congress, had no role in the Carr case and was actually friends with one of their victims.
He strongly objected to the ads, telling Brownback at a 2014 debate that he should be ashamed about exploiting a tragedy.
Brownback’s decision to link Davis to the case was based on his support for the state’s judicial selection system and the fact that the husband of Justice Carol Beier threw a fundraiser on his behalf.
Johnson grilled McFerron about his comparatively small fee of $9,000 to conduct the poll for Kobach’s office, which was addressed to “interested parties” rather than the secretary of state’s office.
He suggested that the poll was meant to curry favor with Kobach, a candidate for governor, ahead of the 2018 election.
“Didn't you see the survey as an investment in getting more business in Kansas?" he asked.
McFerron denied that Kobach’s potential candidacy, which had not been officially announced at the time he conducted the poll, played any role in his work for Kobach’s office.
McFerron’s poll included a question that stated that the proof of citizenship requirement was adopted “because of evidence that aliens were registering and voting in Kansas elections.” Seventy-seven percent of respondents supported the requirement.
He agreed with plaintiffs’ attorney that the question was poorly written and had the potential to produced biased responses, but he said that because it was the final question of the poll, it did not affect the other results in the poll.