The Kansas Republican Party’s infighting has not only put the governor’s mansion and a Senate seat in play this year — it’s also offered Democrats a tantalizing shot at ousting one of the GOP’s leading immigration and voter ID hard-liners.
Kris Kobach, the 48-year-old Kansas secretary of state, helped draft the highly contentious Arizona immigration law, urged Mitt Romney to advocate for “self-deportation” and has been the driving force behind Kansas’ far-reaching voter ID law, which requires not just identification but also proof of citizenship. When Democrats tried to remove their struggling Senate candidate’s name from the ballot here to help Greg Orman, the independent in the race, Kobach turned to the courts to try to block them.
Conservatives admire Kobach’s willingness to tackle divisive social issues and take on the left, even if it has landed him in court battles with the Justice Department. Liberals revile him for policies and links to groups they say are hostile to minorities; they also accuse him of using his nonpartisan office for political purposes, including interfering in the Senate race.
Kobach apologizes for nothing and says he’s simply pushing the government to follow the “rule of law.” “Absolutely,” he says when asked if he still favors stringent policies that encourage undocumented immigrants to self-deport. “And it works.”
But it’s that conservative warrior image that has made Kobach yet another Republican at risk of being booted out in Kansas, which has emerged as the most unpredictable state of the 2014 election cycle.
After years of being sidelined by the tea party, moderate Republicans in Kansas are leading a backlash against GOP Gov. Sam Brownback and Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, and Kobach may not escape their wrath, either. He is facing a surprisingly tough race against former state Sen. Jean Schodorf, a Republican-turned-Democrat who is casting Kobach as more concerned with ideological crusades than properly executing his official duties.
In a state that President Barack Obama lost in 2012 by a whopping 22 points, Nov. 4 may yield a Democratic governor (Paul Davis), an independent senator who could help Democrats keep the majority (Orman) and a Democratic secretary of state. In recent days, House Republican leaders have also had to move to shore up Rep. Lynn Jenkins, who is suddenly in a dogfight for her Topeka-area House seat.
Polls have varied in the secretary of state’s race, at times putting Schodorf up or finding a tie; a survey this week by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, however, found Kobach holding a 6-point lead. Still, while he can rally the base like few others, some Republicans fear he could turn off middle-of-the-road independents ahead of Election Day.