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As immigration debate shifts, will Kris Kobach's role diminish?

Kris Kobach, Republican candidate for Secretary of State, greets supporters behind the lights of a TV camera at an election watch party Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010, in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kris Kobach, Republican candidate for Secretary of State, greets supporters behind the lights of a TV camera at an election watch party Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010, in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner) ASSOCIATED PRESS

Shares in Kris Kobach’s political future — buy, sell, or hold?

Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, built a national profile on immigration issues. In court, in print, and on television, Kobach often serves as the face of Republican support for tougher policies toward illegal immigration.

So this week, as Washington moved toward compromise on the contentious issue, the political world in Kansas and elsewhere reassessed Kobach valuations — and his long-rumored aspirations for higher office.

His political stock slumped last year when GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign, worried about losing Latino support, distanced itself from the Kansan’s tough rhetoric against immigration reform. Last summer, a muddled Supreme Court ruling on a Kobach-inspired immigration law was also seen as a setback.

Then, this week, four Republican senators — citing their party’s November losses — said they would join with four Democrats to support a “path to citizenship” for millions of illegal immigrants.

The developments suggest Kobach’s influence on his party’s immigration position, and his national political visibility, are slipping, some observers said.

“He is marginalized on this issue,” said Joe Aistrup, a political science professor at Kansas State University. “And he’ll continue to be marginalized on a national basis.”

In mid-January, well-known anti-tax conservative Grover Norquist said Kobach’s immigration stance was “not constructive for the country, (and) it’s not constructive for the modern Republican Party.”

But some conservative Republicans and analysts argue the opposite. The GOP’s perceived repositioning on immigration reform will anger millions of Americans, they predict, making Kobach’s voice even more important in the months ahead.

“Many special interests on both the left and the right would be very happy to see Kris put in a corner, shut up, marginalized,” said nationally syndicated conservative columnist Michelle Malkin. “But he has a constituency. ... Most people are where Kris is.”

Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group generally opposed to liberalized immigration policy, agreed. He blamed the GOP immigration split on an old disagreement between corporate conservatives who see immigrants as a cheap labor source, and grassroots conservatives who say illegal immigrants are flouting the law.

“Republican politicians are going to be flocking to Kris Kobach’s door the minute they have to start attending town hall meetings to talk about a big amnesty bill,” Stein said.

Those views reflect the position of some in the conservative media, who have spent the week pushing back against the immigration compromise offered by the so-called Senate Gang of Eight. That group includes Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Richard Durbin of Illinois and former GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona and GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

While some conservative talk-show hosts and TV anchors have warily embraced the discussion — Sean Hannity, for example — other right-leaning writers and columnists have denounced the Gang of Eight proposal as unacceptable amnesty.

Kobach concurs. Further, he insists his influence in the immigration debate is undiminished.

“It’s not my voice,” he said, “it’s the voice of the American people.”

He added: “Individuals like John McCain are not the leaders of the Republican party. And the news media are so excited that Marco Rubio is pro-amnesty, but they never mention (GOP Sen.) Ted Cruz (of Texas), who’s far more qualified and articulate on immigration issues.”

In a statement Monday, Cruz said he had “deep concerns” with the path to citizenship in the proposed Gang of Eight compromise.

Kobach shows no signs that he believes his immigration position is politically damaging. He recently announced he’ll seek re-election next year as secretary of state.

Last August, several agents for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency sued the Obama administration, claiming its order to relax enforcement against children of illegal immigrants was illegal and unconstitutional. Last week, a federal judge threw out part of the lawsuit, but left part of it intact.

Kobach is an attorney for the agents. In a statement, he applauded the ruling.

At the same time, supporters of immigration reform aren’t worried about Kobach’s sustained visibility.

“Kris Kobach is history,” said Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union in Washington, D.C. “Even if you look at Kansas, there’s a growing Latino community there. I don’t see where he goes from here.”

But Republicans and independent analysts in Kansas said Kobach’s influence in the state remains high.

“Kris Kobach is intelligent, energetic, and popular with many Republicans at the grassroots level,” said an email from Kelly Arnold, newly installed chairman of the Kansas Republican party. “His experience and expertise allows him to bring an important perspective on immigration policy to our state.”

Aistrup said Kobach would find it politically difficult to change his views on immigration even if he thought it hurt his national profile.

“It’s hard to back away,” Aistrup said, “from something he feels very strongly about.”