Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach sports an orange hunting cap, a long gun and a wide grin as he stands alongside the president’s son and 20 dead pheasants.
The photo was taken when Donald Trump Jr. came to Kansas last year for a fundraiser on behalf of Kobach’s campaign for governor, an appearance that signaled the president’s family was backing the conservative firebrand even as another Republican prepared to become the state’s new governor.
For a state official, Kobach has wielded significant influence in Donald Trump’s presidency.
Kobach's relationship with the president can be traced back to another man on that pheasant hunt, a Democrat who quietly is connecting the staunch Republican with new constituencies and could play a major role in guiding state government if Kobach captures the Kansas governor's office.
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You might not recognize him, in the far left of the photo, unless you’re a fan of hunting shows on TV or a member of a local labor union.
Keith Mark, who posted the photo to Twitter, introduced Kobach to Trump Jr. in early 2016 and helped facilitate a meeting with the elder Trump that led to Kobach's being the only statewide GOP official to endorse Trump before the Kansas caucus.
In addition to connecting Kobach with the Trump family, Mark — an attorney from Basehor, Kan. — has guided an effort to ingratiate Kobach with labor unions and could land a role in his administration if Kobach is elected governor.
Mark previously co-hosted "Shawn Michaels’ MacMillan River Adventures," a hunting show on the Outdoor Channel that featured Mark embarking on big-game hunts with former professional wrestler Shawn Michaels, also known as "The Heartbreak Kid."
Kobach made multiple appearances on the show. In one episode, he called for removing gray wolves from the endangered species list. In another, he joined Mark on a bear hunt in Canada.
The younger Trump was a fan of the show and approached Mark at a party in Las Vegas.
“He said, ‘I’m Donald Trump Jr.,’ and I felt like an idiot because everyone should know Donald Trump Jr., but I didn’t know him. … We struck up a pretty good friendship and about that time, his dad walked in the room,” Mark said.
Trump Jr. began asking Mark about Kansas politicians who might be interested in supporting his father’s presidential campaign, Mark said.
“I said, ‘I’m a Democrat, man. I don’t know any Republicans,’ ” Mark recalled. “But then I said, ‘Oh, my God, I hunt with Kobach. … He’s the secretary of state, and I can introduce you to him.’ ”
Kobach flew to New Hampshire in February 2016 to meet with then-candidate Trump. The meeting was arranged by Trump Jr., Kobach said.
The following month, Kobach revved up a rally crowd in Wichita when Trump came to the city for the caucus. Kobach went on to advise Trump’s campaign on immigration policy and helped ensure the candidate’s proposed border wall became a plank in the national Republican platform.
He also led a now-disbanded commission on voter fraud and appears to have been involved in the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, based on emails released as part of a lawsuit against the federal government.
“Yes, I did introduce Kris to the Trumps. That happened," Mark said. "But I’m sure when they decided they liked Kris and his opinions, it wasn’t because of his moose-hunting buddy. They already knew Kris was pretty strong in the areas that I think they were looking for some help in.”
Mark met Kobach nine years ago when a friend brought the Republican politician to Mark’s Fourth of July party and they bonded over their shared passion for hunting.
Kobach and Nugent both appeared in a video for Sportsmen for Trump, a group Mark organized during the 2016 election.
Mark also landed a small role in the Trump administration, serving on an advisory board that is helping the U.S. Department of the Interior rewrite federal rules for importing the heads and hides of African elephants and other animals.
His appointment to the board drew scrutiny because of his status as a big-game hunter and his connections to Trump Jr.
Kobach said Trump Jr. will likely return to Kansas this fall to join him and Mark in hunting white-tailed deer. Trump Jr. was unable to obtain the required tag last year, Kobach said.
“It’s a random draw. Even the son of the president can fail to draw a deer tag, but this year I think he got one,” Kobach said.
Kobach and Mark incorporated a not-for-profit entity called Hunter Nation in March.
The group will advocate for hunter-friendly policies nationwide after it formally launches in August. Trump Jr. will be informally involved in the project, according to Kobach.
“I have a passion for hunting. And Keith does. And Don Jr. does,” Kobach said.
In Kansas, Kobach would like to bring back a bounty for coyotes and tweak a regulation to allow blaze pink hunting gear to be used during deer season in addition to the traditional orange.
“A lot of girls are getting into hunting, including my five daughters, and there is some really attractive blaze pink apparel that they would like to wear, but right now that doesn’t qualify as meeting the legal standard for hunting,” he said.
Mark said Hunter Nation also will produce television programs that highlight the country’s “hunting heritage,” including a Thanksgiving special that has already been filmed.
Potential running mate?
But their collaboration is not limited to hunting. Kobach appears to have considered Mark as a potential running mate.
The Star obtained audio of a phone poll conducted in February and paid for by Kobach’s campaign. It asked respondents whether they would be more or less likely to support a candidate for governor “if he had picked a lieutenant governor who was a former Democrat who had contributed to Paul Davis and Kathleen Sebelius.”
Kobach confirmed that the poll was associated with his campaign, but he declined to say whether he considered Mark for lieutenant governor.
“I will say this: We were looking at a whole swath of people as potential running mates,” Kobach said.
Mark’s Mission-based law firm gave former Democratic Gov. Sebelius $1,000 in 2006, according to the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission. The firm gave Davis $2,000 during his 2014 campaign for governor. Mark also personally gave Davis $2,000.
Mark, his wife, his sons and his firm have donated a combined $11,000 to Kobach’s campaign for governor. His firm previously gave $2,000 to Kobach’s 2014 campaign for secretary of state.
“Kobach is the first Republican I ever sent a check to,” Mark said.
Mark said that he couldn’t remember whether Kobach and he ever discussed the possibility of him serving as lieutenant governor, but he said he does not think he was seriously considered for the role.
Shortly after the poll was conducted, Kobach selected Wichita businessman Wink Hartman, a Republican who had dropped out of the race for governor and endorsed Kobach, as his running mate.
Mark has continued to aggressively advocate for Kobach’s candidacy on social media, regularly posting messages of support for Kobach and attacks against Gov. Jeff Colyer, Kobach’s top competition for the GOP nomination.
Outreach to unions
More important, Mark has helped open doors between Kobach and the labor community.
Kobach was the only Republican candidate to address the Kansas State Council of Firefighters during the union’s annual conference earlier this month in Kansas City, Kan.
He spoke to the union a day after it heard from Democratic candidates Josh Svaty and state Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, and on the same day it was addressed by House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita.
“I was about halfway through my speech and in walked Kris. And I’ve got to tell you, that kind of surprised me,” Ward said. “Keith is how he got in the door, I think.”
Bob Wing, the president of the council, said it would have welcomed any candidate for governor who approached it about speaking during the conference. He said Kobach was the only GOP candidate to reach out.
“He was there with a workers’ comp attorney who represents the firefighters, Keith Mark,” Wing said.
Wing said Kobach assisted Mark in the courtroom earlier this year when he successfully argued an appeal of a workers’ compensation case against United Parcel Service.
“I witnessed it. I was in the courtroom,” Wing said, explaining that one of the judges for the Kansas Court of Appeals noted Kobach’s role during the arguments.
The case dealt with a policy change made under former Gov. Sam Brownback that shifted the state to a newer version of the American Medical Association Guide for workers' compensation claims, a move that significantly reduced the amount of money that workers can receive for workplace injuries. Mark said Kobach helped him craft his arguments for the case on constitutional grounds.
“Kris basically gave me the layout of the land of how I needed to proceed in the case,” Mark said.
He compared it to “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a western in which John Wayne’s character secretly wins a gunfight for which Jimmy Stewart’s character receives credit and becomes a legend.
“I’m James Stewart. … Everybody’s giving me credit for the Pardo (v. UPS) case, but Kris Kobach’s really the John Wayne in the alley. I couldn’t have done it without him,” Mark said.
Kobach has supported a Democratic-led effort at the Statehouse to undo the change, and he promised to push for a rollback of the policy as governor.
“I absolutely will. It’s an easy thing to fix,” Kobach said.
“Right now certain workers get no remedy whatsoever for their permanent impairment. They may have an injury that hobbles them for the rest of their lives, and they get zero recovery,” Kobach said.
Kobach's position on the issue puts him at odds with the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, one of the organizations that Republican candidates typically court and the group that championed the shift to the newer edition.
“The chamber’s position was ‘nothing to see here, move along,’ and now the Kansas Court of Appeals has unanimously affirmed the opposite view … and said there is a problem, this is unconstitutional. Presumably the chamber would now want to address the situation," said Kobach, who appeared at a chamber-hosted candidate forum this month.
Sherriene Jones-Sontag, a spokeswoman for the chamber, said the group supports the continued use of "the most recent and up to date medical guides for determining the impairment rating of injured parties," contending that the version the state switched to under Brownback "takes outcomes into consideration, in addition to advancement in medical science.”
Mark referred to the chamber as his greatest enemy and said the business group fears Kobach “because they can’t control him.”
Possible Cabinet appointee
Mark’s association with Kobach has led to speculation in Kansas political circles that Kobach may seek to appoint Mark as his secretary of labor if he’s elected governor, which could empower Mark to help reshape the workers' compensation system.
“That’s probably the only (Kobach) appointee I would actually vote for,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.
Kobach said he would be open to considering Mark for the Department of Labor role, but that at this point, he is focused on winning the governor’s office rather than lining up potential cabinet appointments.
Mark arranged for Kobach to address a January dinner hosted by the Working Kansas Alliance, a coalition of unions that includes the Teamsters. Kobach’s speech focused on workers’ compensation.
“Kris has been a good sport going some places with me where his instincts told him not to. The one reason I wanted to take Kris there is I want everyone to know that here is a pretty conservative Republican that thinks workers have value. I think that’s impressive,” Mark said.
“I think people would be pleasantly surprised if they’d sit down and talk to Kris about some of these labor issues.”
Matt Hall, the secretary-treasurer of the Topeka-based chapter of the Teamsters Union, said the event was issue-based and nonpartisan. He said the union has not made any endorsements in the governor's race.
Hall said Rep. John Carmichael, the Wichita Democrat who has spearheaded the legislation to undo the Brownback changes, also spoke at the January event.
“Is Kris Kobach genuine in his commitment to workers’ rights?" Carmichael said. "I think his past history would suggest that this may be opportunism rather than genuine commitment."
Kobach said that American politics is undergoing a “tectonic shift” and that Republican candidates need to reach out to blue-collar workers.
“This is, I think, where the Republican Party needs to be in the future. It needs to realize that a key constituency is working men and women,” Kobach said.