Government & Politics

As Kris Kobach attacks, Jeff Colyer holds back. Is that a winning strategy?

Kansas governor candidates debate in Atchison

Gov. Jeff Colyer faced attacks by Secretary of State Kris Kobach at a debate in Atchison on April 13, 2018.
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Gov. Jeff Colyer faced attacks by Secretary of State Kris Kobach at a debate in Atchison on April 13, 2018.

Gov. Jeff Colyer wants to beat Kris Kobach for the Republican nomination for governor.

But he’s loath to challenge him publicly.

Given the chance recently, Colyer has chosen not to directly attack Kobach over his controversial tenure as Kansas secretary of state or for being held in contempt by a federal judge.

Yet Kobach seems to relish every opportunity to criticize the governor.

"I don't know what his strategy is to win this gubernatorial primary, but it does appear that he's taking the stance of a tax and spend Republican," Kobach said after Colyer signed a new school finance bill derided by some conservative Republicans.

With just a few more months until the August primary, Colyer and Secretary of State Kobach are widely seen as the leaders for the GOP nomination. But while Kobach has lashed out at Colyer, the governor is trying to build his case on legislative accomplishments.

"We are focusing on solutions for the state of Kansas," Colyer said. "Real solutions, right here, right now, and that's what this is about. And we're moving the ball forward, helping on education, there's a very clear distinction of where we're going, and I'm very excited about this opportunity."

Colyer saw passage of a school finance bill set to boost funding by more than $500 million over five years as a solid achievement.

Less than an hour after Colyer signed the bill, Kobach held his own event to criticize Colyer.

"Obviously he's made a decision not to answer when I've pointed out that we are such a high tax state and when I've pointed out that we don't need to be increasing this spending and we shouldn't be doing so, it's going to lead to another tax increase," Kobach said.

Kobach has earned national name recognition because of his work with and support for President Donald Trump. But much of his recent work has become fodder for critics.

Trump disbanded a commission led by Kobach that was intended to investigate voter fraud after criticism from across the political spectrum. Kobach was then scolded in federal court as he defended Kansas' strict voting laws, and last week he was found in contempt of court.

It's an open question whether Colyer's strategy will be effective, said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University.

"In the post-Trump era, there may be more voters that expect candidates to really mix it up with each other, especially on the Republican side," he said.

Kobach has always been aggressive, Beatty said, and given his ties to Trump, voters would expect him to be on the attack.

“Kobach is sticking to his brand, and that’s probably very wise,” Beatty said. "Whether you like him or not, he's being very consistent and I think that is a plus in electoral politics."

Serious attacks on Kobach could come from third parties, Beatty said, and Colyer would stand to benefit.

The two were a study in contrasts during the party's primary debate in Atchison earlier this month.

Kobach repeatedly attacked Colyer, accusing him of failing to answer questions and decrying his plans to sign the school finance bill. Kobach's fiery performance often generated heavy applause from the crowd of GOP stalwarts.

Colyer not only refrained from criticizing Kobach, he also declined the opportunity to rebut Kobach's attacks on him — waving his hand to signal no when the moderator offered him one minute to respond.

The governor's opening statement even included the promise, which he made without prompting, that he would support the eventual GOP nominee regardless of who wins the primary.

Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, has aligned himself with the Kobach campaign. With the most recent debate on his mind, Claeys said Colyer was surrendering on certain Republican issues, like taxing and spending.

"He had an opportunity to rebut an argument and he just simply waved it off," Claeys said. "I can't explain that. That's the craziest thing I've ever seen."

Claeys has become a critic of the Brownback/Colyer years, an example of the conservative wing of the party that soured on former Gov. Sam Brownback and is now beginning to align itself behind Kobach and his running mate, Wichita businessman Wink Hartman.

"Kobach's a fighter," Claeys said. "I think that's what comes through. I don't think it all has anything to do with attacking based on the person having a shot. I think it's attacking because Kobach takes a stand."

Moderate Rep. Tom Cox, R-Shawnee, said Kobach has a more aggressive campaigning style, while Colyer is focusing on himself and his work.

"Colyer is the governor," Cox said. "Even though he was never elected governor, he is the incumbent governor. So he doesn't have to explain to other people why he's a better governor than they are. ... He can just rest on, like, 'Here's what I'm doing, actually as the governor.' "

Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University, said this approach may be more reflective of Colyer’s personality. Smith said Colyer has taken a race that was Kobach’s to lose and is well on his way to turning it into a two-candidate race.

Former nominee JIm Barnett and Insurance Commissioner Ken Selzer are also running for the GOP nomination.

Colyer is "just not an attack dog kind of a guy," Smith said. "And when you try to hard to fake it and be someone you're not, then voters and reporters ... can pick up on that."

Even when asked directly why he doesn’t try to tangle with Kobach, Colyer returned to his own record.

"I'm a Kansas Republican, and I work with all Republicans," Colyer said. "I don't scream and shout. People have a very clear choice and as governor what you do is make solutions, you work with people, you have very strong commitments. It's a different style, but this is one where we're actually getting things done."

The Star's Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.
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