Government & Politics

Day ahead of Kansas primary, Trump endorses Kobach for governor over Colyer

President Donald Trump endorsed Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach on Monday, a day before polls close in Kansas in the GOP primary for governor.

The endorsement is a major slight to Gov. Jeff Colyer, who rose to the state’s top office in January after Trump appointed former Gov. Sam Brownback to an ambassadorship.

“Kris Kobach, a strong and early supporter of mine, is running for Governor of the Great State of Kansas. He is a fantastic guy who loves his State and our Country - he will be a GREAT Governor and has my full & total Endorsement! Strong on Crime, Border & Military. VOTE TUESDAY!” Trump said on Twitter.

Kobach called Trump’s endorsement “a huge boost” at a news conference Monday afternoon in Mission. Kobach said the support would help him with undecided voters ahead of the Tuesday primary. He would not answer specifically whether he had personally asked Trump to get involved in the race.

“President Trump has been watching the election,” Kobach said. “I speak with him regularly and we’ve been checking in with each other to see how things are going. I think he’s been thinking about it for quite some time.”

Kobach said he and Trump see the world similarly, noting their shared views on illegal immigration and tax policy.

State Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican who works as Kobach’s campaign manager, said the White House reached out about a half-hour before Trump’s tweet to say an endorsement was on the way.

Claeys confirmed news reports that Trump was ready to endorse Kobach in February.

Kobach and Trump spoke on Saturday, Claeys said, as well as the weekend before. They generally talk about immigration issues, Claeys said.

“Usually he wants to hear about opinions on DHS and other issues with ICE,” Claeys said. “(Trump) just asks Kris’s advice on those issues.”

Although advance voting started last month, Kobach said the day before “an election is probably the best time to have an endorsement because you have a relatively slow news day, you still have some undecideds who are finally thinking ‘OK, I better figure out who I’m going to vote for.’ And so it’s actually great timing.”

Colyer has repeatedly asserted his support for Trump’s agenda in recent weeks, including when he refused to take sides after the president attacked Wichita’s Koch family on social media Tuesday.

“We respect the Trump family’s loyalty, but as Bob Dole made clear in his endorsement of the Governor — Dr. Colyer is the best candidate to win tomorrow and is the only candidate who can defeat the Democrats in the Fall,” Colyer spokesman Kendall Marr said in a text message.

Colyer’s campaign sent an email to supporters later in the day, downplaying the significance of the news.

“The Trump family has been very public for over a year about their personal loyalty to Kris Kobach. We respect that, but after two personal visits to Kansas by Donald Trump Jr. and half a million dollars in advertising featuring these ties, the effect of an endorsement is already baked into the cake,” the campaign said in an email.

The Associated Press had previously reported that Trump wanted to endorse Kobach but that aides had counseled the president against an endorsement for fear of alienating Colyer’s supporters.

The president’s involvement in the race could help tip the GOP primary in Kobach’s favor in a state Trump won in 2016 by double digits.

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, could not think of a previous time that a president had endorsed a primary opponent of a sitting governor in his own party.

“Presidents typically remain neutral in party primaries, and then when they do endorse it is usually, if not always, to endorse incumbents,” Miller said. “I can’t think of a situation where this has happened before.”

Trump’s late endorsement of Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp over the state’s lieutenant governor helped Kemp, a candidate with views similar to Kobach’s, prevail in that state’s GOP primary for governor last month.

Kobach, the top election official in Kansas, served as vice chair of a now-disbanded presidential commission tasked with investigating voter fraud and has been cited by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway as the source of the president’s unsubstantiated claim that millions of illegal votes cost him the popular vote in 2016.

Kobach also appears to have been involved in the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 U.S. Census.

He was the only statewide GOP official to back Trump’s candidacy ahead of the Kansas caucuses in 2016 and later went on to advise Trump’s campaign on immigration policy.

He helped add Trump’s promised border wall to the national Republican platform and went on to serve on the president’s transition team after the 2016 election.

Kobach’s campaign highlighted this work in the final days of the campaign with a mailer that featured photos of Kobach with the president and stated in all capital letters that “WHEN PRESIDENT TRUMP NEEDED A PLAN TO FIX ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION… HE TURNED TO THE EXPERT.”

Kobach’s campaign has centered on many of the same themes as Trump’s presidential run. The conservative firebrand, who has served as secretary of state since 2011, has promised to combat illegal immigration and rid Topeka of corruption, a clear echo of Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington.

The president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., has made two campaign appearances on Kobach’s behalf. He headlined a fundraiser in Overland Park last year and returned to the state in July for an event in Wichita.

Kobach’s connection to the Trump family can be traced to his friendship with Keith Mark, a Kansas attorney who introduced Kobach to the younger Trump in early 2016. Kobach’s Monday afternoon took place at Mark’s Johnson County law office.

Colyer and Kobach have been locked in a tight race for governor.

A poll conducted by Remington Research Group, a Kansas City-based firm with ties to Colyer, gave the governor a margin-of-error lead over Kobach in a survey of 2,769 likely GOP voters conducted Aug. 3-5.

Colyer had support from 34 percent of respondents and Kobach from 32 percent in the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points. Former state Sen. Jim Barnett, the party’s 2006 nominee, was the only other candidate in double digits, with 14 percent.

State Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who supports Colyer, questioned how much effect Trump’s endorsement of Kobach would have.

Hawkins said many people have already voted. According to the Kansas secretary of state’s office, more than 49,000 Republican had voted by mail or in person as of Saturday.

And individuals who may not be inclined to support Kobach are probably also not enamored with Trump, Hawkins said.

“The political people — all of those people who are out there watching every single thing think, ‘Holy cow, that’s a big deal: Trump finally came out for Kobach.’ Eh, I’m not sure.”

Franco Ordoñez of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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