Kris Kobach’s nomination for governor has sparked a crisis of conscience among moderate Republicans in Kansas who largely detest his views and behavior but find themselves in an awkward position: They can choose to stay silent on the candidate or endorse one of his competitors and face possible repercussions from GOP leaders.
The conundrum came to a head Monday when House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a moderate 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, the party’s standard bearer.
In the email, Hineman warned that support for independent candidate Greg Orman or Democratic nominee Sen. Laura Kelly “could well be a career-ending move for anyone who chose to do so.”
“Please do not do it!” Hineman said. “Your own vote is of course your own. But do not endorse, do not publicly support, do not join a ‘Republicans for..’ group, and do not write a check. Any of those actions are very inappropriate for a Republican office-holder. I fear there would be serious repercussions.”
The Republican leader’s warning is the latest demonstration of the wide divide in the Kansas GOP, where moderates have tended to side with Democrats in recent years on issues such as Medicaid expansion and rolling back former Gov. Sam Brownback’s 2012 tax cuts.
The centrist Republicans gained strength during the 2016 election cycle, when they ousted conservative incumbents in the House and Senate and then undid key parts of Brownback’s accomplishments during the next session.
But that power has begun to slip away. It started with Sen. John Doll of Garden City leaving the GOP to become Orman’s running mate.
Then Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, said she supported both Kelly and a Democratic challenger to U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder.
Bollier promptly lost her leadership position on the Senate health committee and was publicly criticized by Senate President Susan Wagle, a conservative who announced her support for Kobach in the days before he beat out Gov. Jeff Colyer for the Republican nomination.
House moderates suffered another blow earlier this month when conservative newcomers ousted a handful of incumbents, including Rep. Joy Koesten, a moderate Republican from Leawood, in the GOP primary.
Koesten then wrote a statement and said that “Kris Kobach is one awful, bad idea. Period.” She said in an interview that she supported Kelly’s run for governor.
Kobach, who has promised “full-throttled conservatism” if elected, has rejected the idea of moderating his views for the general election.
The Kansas secretary of state has a history of ill will toward moderates, including earlier this year at the state GOP convention, where he called for recording committee votes in the Kansas Legislature to show that some lawmakers who ran as Republicans don’t vote in line with the GOP agenda.
Prominent moderate Republicans indicated in interviews after Kobach’s nomination that they are trying to stay out of the fray.
“I’m going to evaluate candidates and vote in the November election,” said Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican. “And that’s about as far as I’m going to go.”
House members both to the right and left of the remaining moderates in the chamber were critical of how the faction has handled Kobach.
“I am sure that it worries them because he stands for things that they profess not to and vice versa,” said Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park. “I think it underlines how broad of a label Republican is in Kansas, and Kris Kobach represents one extreme of that, and if you’re not on that end, it’s gotta be an uncomfortable thing to be on the ballot with him at the top of the ticket for your party.”
Kobach’s nomination has been welcomed by Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Stilwell Republican who has toed the line between the moderate and conservative factions in the House.
“He may not be as electable in a general election as Colyer might have been, but the last thing that we want is a Democrat drawing the congressional lines after a census,” Tarwater said.
“Most of the moderates are really Democrat,” Tarwater added later. “The definition of moderate has become so far to the left. ... They’re uneasy supporting someone that’s conservative because it’s new to them, would be my guess.”
Kelly said she was disappointed by Hineman’s message.
“I’m a big believer in free speech,” she said. “And I think any attempt to inhibit that is wrong.”
Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican and Kobach’s campaign manager, said he didn’t think the email was necessary.
“Kansas Republicans are unified behind Kris Kobach for governor,” Claeys said.
An official with Orman’s campaign said Hineman’s missive was another example of the two major parties attempting to reduce choices for voters.
“They want to maintain party discipline because party discipline is what allows them to maintain their hold on power,” said Tim Phillips, Orman’s campaign manager.
Hineman said in his email to the moderates that “I have always believed that support for a candidate carries much more downside risk to the supporter than upside benefit for the candidate asking for that support.”
He said later in an interview that candidates are looking to centrists for possible support or an endorsement in the election to give their campaigns a boost.
“We’re elected Republicans,” Hineman said. “In that role we’re somewhat standard bearers for the party. And to endorse someone in a race against the nominee of the party is a pretty drastic step.”