Government & Politics

For Kansas candidates, President Trump looms large as primaries approach

Republican candidates in Kansas largely are aligning themselves with President Donald Trump. Among Democrats, the way they approach Trump varies.
Republican candidates in Kansas largely are aligning themselves with President Donald Trump. Among Democrats, the way they approach Trump varies.

Donald Trump hasn't come to Kansas since 2016, but his shadow touches key political races across the state.

There’s an image of the president, front and center, in a third-party super-PAC video for Ken Selzer, with a narrator saying Kansas needs a decisive, Trump-like leader, in an attempt to build an association between the president and the Kansas insurance commissioner who's running for governor.

There’s Gov. Jeff Colyer signing a letter along with several other governors that says "there is no one more deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize" than Trump.

“I think these are Johnny-come-lately attempts to try to align themselves with Trump,” said Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and candidate for governor who was an early cheerleader for Trump. “Look, where were these guys during the primary cycle in 2016?”

In a state often defined by its conservative values, GOP candidates are largely trying to find a way to link themselves with Trump as the August primary approaches. But Democrats differ on how to deal with Trump as they look to win in a state where no Democrat holds a statewide office or a congressional seat.

In 2016, Trump won Kansas by more than 20 percentage points, posting a better margin than John McCain did over former President Barack Obama in 2008 and a shade less than the 21 percent advantage that Mitt Romney had over Obama in 2012.

“Being on the good side of Trump, symbolically at least, is not a bad strategy, because the audience (Colyer) has to play to in the short term likes the guy, and they like him a lot, on average,” University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said. “If you’re trying to, I think, play to the anti-Trump constituency in the Republican Party, you’re limiting yourself to a very small constituency.”

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat who recently left the governor’s race but is seeking re-election to the Legislature, said Trump is a “love him or hate him” force in the governor's race.

“Trump does our work without me interjecting myself," Ward said. "He is so toxic to so many constituent groups that tend to support Democrats. Him going to work every day does the work for me.”

“He activates our base of constituency groups,” Ward later added. “And then the Republican primaries across the country, including Kansas, have been a referendum on which candidate is more Trump-like, which helps us with all of those moderate and swing groups."

Trump’s presence in Kansas comes most clearly through his ties to Kobach, who has advised the president on election and immigration law matters. He also helped lead Trump’s voter fraud commission, which was later disbanded.

Kobach, who hasn’t been shy about shredding his Republican rivals in the governor’s race, said he speaks with the president regularly.

“They obviously are now pretending as if they have been on board with the Trump agenda, but in fact they weren’t,” Kobach said. “They weren’t part of the Trump movement at the beginning, and now they’re just trying to, in a typical politician-type way, trying to suggest that they’ve been there all along.”

Trump still has high favorability numbers in the state, said Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party.

“Our Republicans here in Kansas, specifically our candidates, have all lined up next to President Trump,” Arnold said. “You’ve seen that from several of our governor candidates, Secretary Kobach, Gov. Colyer, have all done things specifically to kind of show their support of the president.”

Congressional races

In the race for Congress in the 2nd District, Republicans are struggling to coalesce around a favored candidate to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins.

And while the Republican field continues to grow and fracture among candidates, including two who made a late entry in the past month, Democrat Paul Davis has managed to raise more money than the entire GOP field and spark Republican dread that the party may lose a seat it has controlled since 2009.

Davis, who is running in a district that includes more liberal Topeka and Lawrence combined with a swath of conservative Kansas country, has largely avoided attacking the president by name.

“I’m not running for or against President Trump,” Davis said. “I’ve said all along that I will work with him and want to work with him if he’s doing things that are going to be good for the people of eastern Kansas, and I’m going to call him out in situations where I think he’s doing things that are harmful.”

The president hasn’t posed the same balancing act for conservatives running for the seat, like Sen. Steve Fitzgerald. When he kicked off his campaign last year, the Leavenworth Republican called for “the rapid accomplishment of the agenda brought by President Trump.”

Sen. Caryn Tyson remained confident in her campaign’s chances. The conservative Republican from Parker is the only woman running in a crowded field of conservative men.

Tyson said she “absolutely supports the president's efforts.”

“The 2nd District stands with him,” she said. “And we’ll see that when the votes occur.”

In the Kansas City area, Trump narrowly lost the 3rd congressional district to Democrat Hillary Clinton. In the wake of that, several Democrats trying to unseat U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder have been willing to be critical of Trump, including Tom Niermann, a Prairie Village teacher, and Sharice Davids, a Shawnee lawyer.

But Brent Welder, a Bonner Springs labor lawyer who worked on U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, was the most aggressive about Trump during a recent interview with The Star.

“I am Donald Trump and Kevin Yoder’s worst nightmare,” said Welder, a progressive Democrat.

Yoder’s campaign said in an email that he doesn’t take any election for granted and is a visible force in the district. Though Clinton won the 3rd in 2016, Yoder still won his race by almost 11 points over Democrat Jay Sidie.

The Overland Park Republican also had nearly $2 million cash on hand at the end of March, far more than any of his Democratic challengers.

“He’s recognized as a national leader on issues important to families in our community — education in particular — and is influential in setting U.S. priorities on homeland security,” Yoder spokesman C.J. Grover said in a statement. “Contrast that with a field of extreme liberal candidates hailing from the Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, socialist wing of the Democrat Party running on massive tax increases, open borders, and obstructionism and it quickly becomes clear the road back to Nancy Pelosi’s speakership does not travel through the Third District.”

'Kris' only prayer'

Between Kobach’s personal familiarity with Trump and Donald Trump Jr. holding a campaign fundraiser for Kobach late last year, there’s little room for other Republicans running for governor to define themselves as Trump-esque candidates.

A GOP consultant familiar with Kansas but who is not working for anyone in the governor’s race said Kobach has gone from a frontrunner six months ago to more of an underdog.

“I think Kris’ only prayer is if he is able to kind of slingshot based upon support from the Trump base,” the consultant said. “And that’s his only prayer to win the primary.”

Kobach said he remains “very closely involved with the Trump administration.”

“Hopefully as governor I will be able to continue to help the state of Kansas with those close ties that I have with the president,” Kobach said.

A spokeswoman for Colyer’s campaign said: “Governor Colyer supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election and has appreciated working with him as Governor on growing the economy, securing our borders and bringing world-class education to our public schools.”

Colyer did not endorse anyone in the 2016 primary, according to his campaign.

Former GOP nominee Jim Barnett, a Topeka doctor running for governor, also chose his words carefully when asked about Trump.

"I certainly hear a lot of support for President Trump across the state,” Barnett said. “There are also a lot of concerns expressed, particularly in the area of ag, because of concerns over tariffs and trade issues.”

Despite the advertisement equating him with Trump, Selzer was less enthusiastic in an interview about the president. Selzer is focused on Kansas issues, he said, and remains watchful of tariffs and agricultural trade policy.

The Trump ad pairing Selzer with the president came from a super-PAC called Kansas First. Documents with the Federal Election Commission show the group has an address in Arlington, Va., and brought in $440,000 from four donors from December to March.

Selzer did not endorse any candidate in the 2016 presidential primary, according to his campaign spokeswoman.

Selzer said he’s not concerned if Trump comes to the state on behalf of another candidate.

Trump Jr. came to Overland Park for Kobach, and “that didn’t seem to make much of a difference at all,” Selzer said.

“I think Kansas Republican voters like Mr. Trump, as do I,” Selzer said. “I like a number of the things he’s done. I don’t agree with his style.”