Could Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach be tapped to replace John Kelly as secretary of Homeland Security now that Kelly will be taking over as President Donald Trump’s chief of staff?
Kobach, a hardline proponent of stricter immigration laws, has been floated as a possible choice to succeed Kelly by Politico and pundits across the political spectrum Friday night following the White House reshuffle in that saw Kelly, a retired four-star general, shifted to chief of staff following the exit of former Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus.
Kobach, who is pursuing the Kansas governor’s office in 2018, met with Trump about a strategic plan for the Department of Homeland Security in November and told the Star last month that he turned down positions in the agency and the White House to remain in Kansas.
“It was a really tough choice,” Kobach said in June. “I mean, that’s a big deal getting to be invited by the president to work for his administration, but finally I decided that, no, I wanted to stay in Kansas and consider running for governor.”
A Kobach nomination could face backlash and require near total unity from Senate Republicans to succeed.
Kobach wouldn’t get a single Democratic vote, said a senior Senate aide. Democrats just somebody competent and qualified in the spot, the aide said.
The nomination would have to go through the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, serves as the ranking member on that committee and has voiced her strong opposition to the prospect of a Kobach nomination in the past.
“I know too much about Kris Kobach,” McCaskill told The Star in November. “There’s no way I could ever support him.”
Kobach had to pay a $1,000 fine earlier this month after a federal judge determined that he had patently misled the court about documents from his meeting with Trump. The documents, which include proposals to change national voting registration laws, are at the center of an ongoing lawsuit brought against Kobach’s office by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Neither Kobach, nor his campaign staff responded to phone calls, text messages or emails Friday or Saturday as speculation about a possible DHS appointment mounted.
“I’m hearing from Hill folks that Kobach could, in fact, be confirmed. If that’s true, he’d be the obvious pick for DHS,” tweeted Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for limitations on the number of immigrants admitted to the United States.
The Wall Street Journal reported in January that Trump had wanted Kobach to serve in the No. 2 position in Homeland Security, but that he faced resistance from Kelly, who successfully blocked the appointment. Kelly’s decision to accept the chief of staff role could ironically land Kobach the No. 1 job at the agency if the rumors are true.
Trump later appointed Kobach to serve as vice chairman of his presidential commission on voting. Kobach’s extensive data request for voters’ personal information sparked national controversy, with 14 states and the District of Columbia refusing to comply.
Other states, including Kansas, will only share some of the information requested because privacy laws forbid them from sharing partial Social Security digits and other information Kobach requested.
The rumors of a Kobach appointment come the same week that Trump chose Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to serve as the next ambassador at-large for international religious freedom.
Brownback’s departure has reset the governor’s race by raising the possibility that Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer could campaign for the Republican nomination as a sitting governor.
Kobach said Friday – before the Kelly news was announced – that the prospect of Colyer becoming governor would not change his campaign strategy, which centers on promises to lower taxes, reduce illegal immigration and fight a “culture of corruption” in Topeka.
Stategists and political scientists have generally seen Kobach as the strongest Republican candidate for Kansas governor a year ahead of the August 2018 primary. His exit from the race to take a presidential appointment could elevate Colyer’s potential candidacy.
Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said that as far as he knows Kobach remains committed to the gubernatorial race.
“I heard some speculation yesterday and I just don’t know,” Barker said about the idea that Kobach would go to DHS. “I don’t know if he’d be interested from some of the things he’s said in the past.”
Barker said that usually an administration would have a candidate to replace a cabinet secretary in mind before making a change like this.
“That would be the normal procedure. But I don’t know how quickly this was made, this decision,” Barker said. “It’s one level above my pay grade.”