Government & Politics

Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach officially kicks off 2020 Senate campaign

Kansas Republican Kris Kobach kicked off his campaign for the U.S. Senate Monday, sparking an immediate backlash from national Republicans who fear he could cost the party a seat it has held for eight decades.

The former Kansas secretary of state gathered supporters in Leavenworth Monday afternoon to officially announce his candidacy for the open Senate seat with a fiery speech that took aim at illegal immigration, the dangers of socialism and the unwillingness of Republican Party leaders to stand up for President Donald Trump’s agenda.

“President Trump needs a senator who will lead the charge for him,” Kobach said. “This is not a time for a quiet senator. It’s not a time for a senator who wants to make everybody happy and doesn’t want to take a stand. It’s not a time for a senator who is Republican-lite.”

Kobach’s campaign launch comes less than a year after he lost the 2018 race for governor despite Trump’s full-throated support in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1.

Standing in front of a sign that said “Build the Wall,” Kobach, 53, touted his connections to Trump and said he spoke to the president during the July 4 holiday, a claim that was not immediately verified by The White House.

“I don’t talk about what the president and I say in our communications, but let me just say he was very encouraging when we spoke a few days ago,” Kobach told reporters.

A source familiar with Trump’s schedule was unaware of the call, but Kobach’s spokeswoman said the president and candidate had a private conversation on the afternoon of July 4, the same day as the president’s salute to the military.

Kobach advised Trump on immigration policy throughout the 2016 campaign and has emerged as a figure behind a controversial effort to construct a border wall through private dollars. Kobach serves as general counsel and a board member for We Build the Wall, Inc., a group which has raised $24 million toward constructing barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I’ve been on the southern border constantly in the past six months and I can tell you stories that will make your skin crawl,” said Kobach, who said he would remain with the group during his Senate campaign.

He also promoted his role in advising Trump to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, a proposal currently blocked by a Supreme Court order. Despite his ties to Trump, Kobach has been unable to land a full-time role in the administration.

Kobach’s official announcement drew tumultuous cheers from the crowd of about 50 supporters in Leavenworth. But it faced scorching rejection from the GOP establishment in both Kansas and Washington, which is looking to defend its Senate majority in 2020.

“Just last year Kris Kobach ran and lost to a Democrat. Now, he wants to do the same and simultaneously put President Trump’s presidency and Senate Majority at risk. We know Kansans won’t let that happen and we look forward to watching the Republican candidate they do choose win next fall,” said Joanna Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee (NRSC).

Despite the fact that Rodriguez serves as the NRSC’s press secretary, Kobach inaccurately claimed in Leavenworth that the committee had not taken an official stance on his candidacy.

“I don’t think the NRSC has said anything official. There has been lots of individuals who have some loose association,” Kobach said. “The race in the Kansas Senate is going to be about President Trump. It’s certainly not going to endanger President Trump.”

A magnet for Democratic dollars?

The backlash from national GOP officials is similar to their resistance against Judge Roy Moore in Alabama, who has announced a second candidacy for the Senate. Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones in a 2017 special election after allegations of inappropriate behavior with underage women.

Kobach’s Senate campaign comes less than a year after Kobach lost the 2018 race for governor to Democrat Laura Kelly in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1.

A hardline critic of illegal immigration and fixture on cable news, Kobach remains popular with a large segment of the party’s conservative base. But his 2018 campaign was heavily criticized by GOP strategists for its disorganization, lackluster fundraising and inability to appeal to moderate voters.

Democrats see Kobach’s entry into the race as an opportunity to win a Senate seat in the GOP-leaning state for the first time since 1932. If Kobach wins the nomination, national Democratic donors may steer major dollars into the race.

“Kris Kobach’s entry into a divided field gives conservative Republicans a standard bearer, for sure, but I think Democratic donors will be incredibly motivated, and they will break out their checkbooks to stop someone so out of control even Trump couldn’t find a place for him,” said Kansas Democratic National Committeeman Chris Reeves.

Jared Suhn, a GOP strategist who oversaw the launch of Kobach’s 2018 campaign, warned against his entry into the Senate race and also cited his 2004 defeat as a candidate for the U.S. House.

“Republicans gave Kris Kobach the opportunity to defeat Dennis Moore and Laura Kelly and he failed both times. This isn’t about ideology— it’s about being able to put together a competent and winning campaign,” said Suhn, who left Kobach’s campaign for governor in the spring of 2018 after disagreements with the candidate.

“He hasn’t earned a third shot.”

Supporters see a ‘principled’ candidate

Hours before his official kickoff, Kobach filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission. But the filing initially spelled his first name as “Chris,” an inauspicious start to his campaign to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Roberts. The spelling was corrected about an hour later.

“We had a whole bunch of people helping over the past week and I don’t even know who was the person that transcribed it. It’s not the first time Kris has been misspelled in my case with a CH rather than a K,” Kobach said. “They quickly corrected their typo, I’m told.”

During his speech, Kobach pointed to his background as a constitutional lawyer as a qualification, but skirted over the legal controversies that plagued him during his tenure as Kansas secretary of state.

“I don’t need a legislative aide to tell me what the law says. I’ve been litigating… That’s part of the problem in Washington, everything’s delegated,” Kobach said.

A federal judge found Kobach in contempt of court last year and ordered him to take remedial law classes after a civil trial in which Kobach served as his own attorney in defending his office against a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Kobach committed numerous procedural errors during the trial and the judge ultimately struck down a law, which he had crafted, that required Kansas voters to provide proof of citizenship in order to register.

Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, panned the prospect of another statewide campaign by Kobach.

“If Kobach were to be the primary nominee, significant out-of-state money would pour into the hands of democrats to take advantage of his ineffective campaign strategies,” Denning said in a statement. “We cannot afford to repeat his mistakes and hand another gift to the democrats.”

But a few prominent Republicans remain firm in their support for the former Kansas secretary of state.

“My friends are people who are principled, and they stand up for what they believe and they don’t back down. And that’s Kris Kobach all the way,” said state Rep. Ron Highland, a Wamego Republican.

Kobach’s campaign launch could reignite efforts to recruit U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo into the race. Pompeo remains Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s preferred candidate for the race.

Kobach sought a meeting with McConnell in early March during a visit to Washington, but was told that the GOP leader was in Kentucky, according to a source close to McConnell.

Groups with ties to McConnell have hinted that they could spend money against Kobach to prevent him from winning the nomination.

But even many of Kobach’s former supporters in Kansas have cooled on the idea of him as a candidate.

Norman McLeod, a Leavenworth resident who donated $200 to Kobach’s campaign for governor, now vehemently opposes him. Kansans have soured on Kobach’s immigration positions, McLeod contends, adding that the media will “crucify him” during his Senate candidacy.

“My answer is not only no but hell no,” McLeod said of whether he would support Kobach. “Kris Kobach is toxic for the state of Kansas.”

Kobach won the primary for governor last year after a last-minute endorsement from Trump.

The president appeared with Kobach on the campaign trail and said he would hire him in “two seconds” if he wasn’t running for office. But in the months since his gubernatorial defeat Kobach’s efforts to land a position in the administration have been unsuccessful.

Kobach’s demands for access to a private jet and walk-in privileges to the Oval Office drew national mockery in May after they were leaked to The New York Times.

Kobach joins Kansas Treasurer Jake LaTurner and former Johnson County Commissioner Dave Lindstrom in the GOP primary, but a large number of other potential GOP candidates are also considering, including Rep. Roger Marshall, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle and Kansas Chamber of Commerce President Alan Cobb. Former U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom and former Rep. Nancy Boyda are seeking the Democratic nomination.

Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka, said Kobach would benefit from a large Republican primary field because he could win with a relatively small share of the vote.

Kobach’s failure in the governor’s race last year doesn’t necessarily spell trouble in the Senate race, where national topics like immigration will be at the center of the debate, Beatty said.

“In many ways, the governor’s race was a very bad fit for him. This is a much more natural election for him to run in,” Beatty said.

Lesley Clark of The McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report. Shorman reported from Topeka and Leavenworth. Lowry reported from Washington.
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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.