Government & Politics

Kansas GOP lawmakers’ silence on whether they support Kobach angers some within party

Kris Kobach may be the chosen standard-bearer for the Kansas Republican Party, but elected GOP officials are less than unified behind him in his run for governor.

Almost 40 percent of Republicans in the Kansas Legislature, when asked whether they will support Kobach in November, either would not say or did not respond to repeated inquiries. Four moderate Republicans, all from Johnson County, have said they will not support Kobach.

“I’m not going to take a position on that race. I just don’t feel like it’s any benefit to me to do that,” said House Majority Whip Kent Thompson, a Republican from Iola, without elaborating.

The numbers show the division within the Kansas Republican Party is real, said Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University.

In a Kansas City Star survey of 95 Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate who are either on the ballot or will remain in office next year, 58 percent said they would support Kobach.

Kobach beat Gov. Jeff Colyer by just 343 votes in the August primary. Conservatives in the state GOP have been critical in recent weeks of moderates who aren’t supporting the party’s nominee. That split was further shown when former Gov. Bill Graves, the last moderate Republican to serve as governor, endorsed Democratic State Sen. Laura Kelly in the race against Kobach.

Rep. Steve Huebert, a Valley Center Republican, said he is working with moderate Republicans that he is friends with to try to convince them that they don’t want to vote for the Democrat in the race.

“Be careful what you ask for, or think might be OK,” he said.

On the Democratic side, 94 percent of those in the Legislature said they will vote for Kelly in November.

“She will be a great Governor and the alternative is too horrible to even contemplate,” Rep. Jerry Stogsdill, a Prairie Village Democrat, said in an email.

Friction in the Kansas Republican Party has long been been evident, as conservatives and moderates jockey for power in a party that has largely been in conservatives’ hands since former Gov. Sam Brownback worked to oust moderates during the 2012 election cycle.

But after a wave of moderates defeated conservatives in the 2016 election, many running on an anti-Brownback message, centrists have been able to gain a more commanding place in Topeka.

Then Kobach’s nomination happened.

In a late August email, House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate Republican from Dighton, wrote to more than two dozen of his fellow centrists to discourage them from taking a public stance on anyone other than Kobach.

In the email, Hineman warned that support for Independent Greg Orman or Kelly “could well be a career-ending move for anyone who chose to do so.”

Hineman did not respond to questions from The Star in the last week about whether he will support Kobach as the nominee.

Another high-ranking centrist would not say whether he would vote for Kobach, though he endorsed Colyer in the Republican primary.

“I haven’t made a decision yet,” said Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican.

Others in the party have celebrated Kobach’s win.

“Secretary Kobach is the best candidate for governor this State has had in my lifetime,” Rep. Francis Awerkamp, a St. Marys Republican, said in an email.

“He’s kind of a lightning rod, but I agree on a lot of the things he says so he’s going to get my support,” said Rep. Randy Garber, a Sabetha Republican.

Kobach’s views on immigration, taxes and social issues have long belonged to the conservative side of the party. Those views didn’t change in the primary, and he has given little indication he will make a play for moderate voters in the general election.

Kobach appeared unfazed when he was asked after the first gubernatorial debate in Overland Park whether he was discouraged by a number of Republican officeholders not saying whether they will support him.

A lot of the lack of apparent support is part of a strategic and tactical decision on the candidates’ part when they look at their district, Kobach said.

“This is typical in any major election where you have people at different levels up and down the ballot,” Kobach said.

Backed by Trump, Kobach has promised “full-throttled conservatism” that would include reversing the 2017 tax increase that largely ended Brownback’s tax cuts, as well as the 2015 sales tax increase approved by Brownback.

The 2017 tax increase has helped stabilize the state’s finances after a period of uncertainty and missed revenue projections.

The Republican dilemma with Kobach, which showed in the 28 percent who would not say whether they would support him and close to 10 percent who avoided comment, could give Kelly and Orman a chance at gaining votes from the center.

Kelly has molded her run around the idea of being “the education” governor, while also advocating for Medicaid expansion. Orman has criticized the work both major parties have done running the state and points to his experience as a private sector businessman as a major reason he should be elected.

All four of the Republicans who have said they will not support Kobach are from Johnson County. Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, said earlier this summer she’d support Kelly.

“I don’t understand why not, why they won’t,” Bollier said about moderates not coming out against Kobach. “It’s hard for me to understand. It’s about being electable, they believe, and for me it’s about doing the right thing for the state.”

Moderates were elected to “go up there and fix this,” she said.

“And (Kobach) wants to go right back to cutting everything,” Bollier said. “We already know that didn’t work.”

The trio of other moderate women, Rep. Stephanie Clayton, Rep. Melissa Rooker and Sen. Dinah Sykes, joined their colleague’s opposition to Kobach when asked in recent weeks if they would support the Republican nominee.

Clayton and Sykes would not say who they are going to support, while Rooker, after saying she would not support Kobach, did not respond to a question about who she would vote for in November.

Clayton said in an email that what Kansas needs most is a rational and measured governor, one who will keep “a balanced budget, negotiate calmly with the business community to bolster our economy, and fully fund the gem of Johnson County: our wonderful public schools.”

Other Republicans said they were focusing on their races, or that they didn’t plan to endorse anyone in the race. Some took umbrage about being asked whether they would support Kobach.

“If you’re asking me how I’m going to vote, I’m not going to answer the question,” said Sen. Bruce Givens, a moderate El Dorado Republican.

The election is a repeat, said Rep. Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City, Kan., Democrat, of 2014 when moderate Republicans largely avoided taking a stand against Brownback when he ran successfully for re-election.

“I think there’s a fear factor involved with not getting on board with Kobach, possibly, within the Republican Party,” he said.

If Kobach doesn’t win, said Rep. Jack Thimesch, a Spivey Republican, “we’re in a mess again.”

He scorned the lawmakers who won’t say whether or not they’re supporting Kobach.

“There’s a lot of them that don’t have no balls or no guts,” Thimesch said.

The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.