Illegal immigration catapulted Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach onto the political scene a decade ago.
Now, as passion for gun rights overshadows the issue of immigration, Kobach has turned toward protecting firearms as much as protecting borders.
He sees little new in what he is doing, arguing that he has long been a champion of the rights of states and individuals as spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.
Yet there’s no denying that the gun cause, amid high-profile mass shootings and more efforts to control firearms, is becoming a more prominent part of the Kobach agenda.
Late last month, Kobach’s campaign committee mailed thousands of fundraising letters advertising his work on a bill to nullify federal gun control laws for firearms made and kept in Kansas.
He lashed out at U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for threatening legal action against Kansas for a law generally believed to be unconstitutional.
Kobach tells potential donors that President Barack Obama’s Democratic “machine” is out to get him.
“Gun-control zealots are livid that I would stand up to the Obama-Holder regime,” Kobach wrote.
The flier boasts a quote from rocker and gun advocate Ted Nugent: “America needs more Kris Kobachs — now more than ever.”
Observers say Kobach’s letter signals a new emphasis on a politically potent gun constituency and away from his controversial fight against illegal immigration.
“He’s trying to ride a wave,” said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University.
Kobach’s letter is noteworthy coming from a secretary of state — an office that primarily administers elections and oversees business filings. It’s up to the attorney general to defend state laws.
A constitutional professor who helped write the gun bill, Kobach was among the first to publicly come to its defense after Holder wrote a letter to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and threatened to block the law.
“I’ve been a gun guy for quite a few years now,” Kobach said.
Yet statehouse records indicate he has not always been active on the issue.
The Legislature considered what was known as the Kansas Firearms Freedom Act in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Similar to what was enacted this year, the bill intended to shield guns made, owned and kept in Kansas from federal regulations. (Kobach said he conferred with lawmakers about the earlier bills but wasn’t involved in drafting the language.)
Records show Kobach did not appear before legislative committees to testify for the bills — not even in 2010 when he was running for secretary of state.
Kobach said gun rights bills didn’t have as good a chance to pass until this year because the Senate had been run by moderate Republicans and Democrats.
“I got involved in the drafting once it became clear that we had the ability to pass a strong bill,” he said.
Kobach’s politics have long been tied to illegal immigration. He gained national prominence working with cities and states to write laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants. He has also been a leading voice for measures to stop voter fraud.
“Second Amendment rights are way down there,” noted Kansas State University political scientist Joe Aistrup.
But immigration politics are starting to lose their luster. Polls show the public favors allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens, and the Hispanic vote propelled Barack Obama to a second term as president.
Even in a deep red state like Kansas, Kobach hasn’t persuaded the Legislature to embrace his proposals to clamp down on illegal immigration. Likewise, the powerful and conservative Kansas Chamber of Commerce has not been an ally on the issue.
Kobach’s policies have also been set back by two court decisions.
On Monday, a federal appeals court struck down a law banning landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants in a Texas town.
And a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision raised questions about the legality of a law he pushed requiring first-time Kansas voters to provide proof of citizenship.
“He’s putting (immigration) to the side for right now because strategically it probably isn’t working very well for him,” Rackaway said.
When immigration reform protesters gathered on his front porch earlier this year, Kobach quickly related the incident to the value of the Second Amendment.
“There are situations like this where you have a mob and you do need to be able to protect yourself,” Kobach told Fox News.
Democrats view Kobach’s interest in guns cynically.
“There isn’t a single thing the secretary of state can do about gun laws,” said Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon. “It’s just got to be a ploy toward raising money for his re-election campaign.”
Kobach already has drawn an opponent for 2014. Mission Hills businessman Randy Rolston, a Democrat, has put $201,000 of his money into the race. Kobach, meanwhile, ended 2012 with $61,460 in the bank.
“What drives me is the desire to protect our Constitution,” Kobach said of his gun campaign.
He said states’ rights are the common issue tying guns to immigration. He said protecting gun rights enshrined in the Second Amendment is every bit about protecting the states’ rights guaranteed in the 10th Amendment.
“I am consistently looking for ways that states can assert the protection of their own interests,” Kobach said.