Republican firebrand Kris Kobach won’t be the next governor of Kansas, but his defeat may do little to curb his future political potential.
Kobach’s brand of illegal immigration and voter fraud tough talk won over President Donald Trump long ago. Ultimately, Trump’s support may be far more important to Kobach’s future than a single state election.
“I think Kobach is the kind of guy who’s got unlimited potential,” Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, said in an interview a few days before the election.
On Tuesday night, Kobach lost the election for governor to Laura Kelly, a Democratic state senator from Topeka.
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In interviews, politicians, activists and political observers predict Kobach’s loss will likely prove to be a detour in his rise to prominence rather than a fatal blow.
“He clearly has national ambitions, whether it’s the judiciary, the Senate, the White House. It just kind of depends on shifting terrain here,” said Russell Arben Fox, a political scientist at Friends University in Wichita.
A position in the Trump administration would be an obvious place for Kobach to go, Fox said. Or he can travel the country warning of the dangers of illegal immigration.
How many secretaries of state attract standing room crowds at the Conservative Political Action Conference – a major conservative gathering – Bannon asked.
“I think he’s a pretty special person,” Bannon said.
Kobach was the first statewide Kansas official to endorse Trump in the 2016 campaign. He has kept his proximity to the president and has acted as an informal adviser on immigration.
Trump became a key campaign element for Kobach, who said his closeness to the president would give Kansas an edge.
Kobach has also been quick to defend some of Trump’s baseless claims, such as his contention that he lost the popular vote in the presidential race because of voter fraud. And Kobach defended Trump’s frequent campaign promise that he would make Mexico pay for a massive border wall.
Kobach was “very competitive” to become secretary of Homeland Security or a deputy, Bannon said. Kobach would have been great in either position, he added.
In 2017, Kobach publicly weighed whether to pursue a job in the Trump administration or stay in Kansas and run for governor. He decided to stay and launched his campaign that May.
“For me, the question was, where could I move the ball the farthest where nobody else could,” Kobach said earlier this year.
A job in Washington may not mean the end of Kobach’s political career in Kansas. No one in Kansas politics is ever done, said Kansas House Democratic Leader Jim Ward.
Ward described a “nightmare scenario” where Kobach goes to Washington for four or five years, then returns to Kansas to run for federal office.
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, 82, has not yet said he will run for re-election again in 2020.
Kobach, who has run for Congress before, has a home in Douglas County in the state’s second congressional district.
“But what I hope happens is that he goes to Washington for 18 months and is looking for a job along with all the other Trumpers in 2021,” Ward said.
It’s an open question whether Kansas would be receptive to Kobach in a future run.
Kobach’s loss in the governor’s race sends a clear message that Kansans do not support his extreme agenda, said Micah Kubic, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.
The ACLU and Kobach have tangled in court throughout his time in office and the ACLU was successful in getting a federal judge this year to declare his signature proof-of-citizenship voter registration law unconstitutional. The state is appealing the decision.
“I don’t think there is any way to read a loss by Secretary Kobach as anything other than a wholesale rejection of the policies he has stood for,” Kubic said.
Kelly also relentlessly tagged Kobach as another iteration of Sam Brownback, the state’s unpopular former governor.
For his part, Kobach raised his hand during a debate last week when asked if he thought Brownback was a good governor. But at other times, he has highlighted his differences with the former governor, such as his opposition to a 2015 sales tax hike that Brownback signed into law.
Kobach’s loss is a rejection of the Brownback mentality toward government, said state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Republican who endorsed Kelly.
“(It’s) people saying enough,” Bollier said. “We’re not going down that road anymore.”
Where Kobach’s road will lead remains uncertain. But everyone agrees this is not the end.
“Kobach’s career is not stalled by losing this governor’s race,” said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University.