Another conservative leads Kansas governor race after crisis

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (AP Photo/John Hanna)

SHAWNEE, Kan. (AP) — If you thought Kansas emerged from its long budget crisis to reject deep-red politics and move back toward the center, think again.

A year ago, many voters concluded that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s experiment in cutting income taxes had ended in failure, opening the door to a more moderate agenda. But now an even more aggressively conservative figure could win next year’s race for governor.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Harvard-, Yale- and Oxford-educated lawyer, leads a large field of likely candidates after building a national reputation as hardline provocateur on immigration and voter ID laws. His visibility rose sharply after President Donald Trump appointed him to help lead a commission on election fraud.

“People know who I am,” he declared during a recent interview. “I don’t have to spend a lot of time and money explaining what my position is or what my brand is.”

Although the election is still a year away, Kobach’s many critics wonder whether he can be stopped, citing his political skills, his name recognition and his loyal base of supporters.

It’s a remarkable scenario for a state supposedly weary of ideological drama. Until recently, many observers were betting that Kansas would seek moderation — not the most explosive conservative option available.

The state’s recent financial woes offered a warning about how not to practice trickle-down economics. After Brownback persuaded the Republican-controlled Legislature to slash income taxes in 2012, Kansas struggled to balance its budget.

At the same time, the Legislature has been embroiled in a test of wills with a state Supreme Court that says school spending is unconstitutionally inadequate.

Voters last year ousted two dozen conservative lawmakers. Most of Brownback’s tax cuts were rolled back this year with a $600 million-a-year tax hike.

Meanwhile, Kobach has become an icon to many Kansas conservatives.

Kobach first gained national attention more than a decade ago as a law professor who drafted state and local policies against illegal immigration, including Arizona’s “show your papers” law. As Kansas’ top elections official since 2011, he won passage of strict voter ID laws, which resulted in multiple voting-rights lawsuits.

During the presidential race, Kobach not only backed Trump’s call to build a wall along the U.S-Mexican border but publicly outlined a plan for forcing Mexico to pay for it.

After the election, Kobach met with Trump and proposed a homeland security plan that included federal registration and “extreme vetting” for some immigrants and changes in federal voting laws to encourage state “proof of citizenship” requirements for new voters, like Kansas has.

He still has regular contact with the White House and was among the sources behind Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that millions of illegal ballots kept the president from winning the popular vote. He’s also a regular Breitbart News columnist.

Supporters describe Kobach as a fighter, and the square-jawed 51-year-old has the physical presence of a former heavyweight. He delivers comments in public about immigration and election fraud that outrage others with calm certitude. The words flow even when he’s arguing on his feet.

He believes his strong stance on immigration plays well with blue-collar Democrats and independents, but he’s running as an unabashed conservative, promising no “pivot” after the primary.

In his campaign, Kobach remains an abortion opponent and guns-rights advocate. He has excoriated this year’s state tax increase, promised to cut government and declared that just because lawmakers appropriate tax dollars, a governor does not have to spend them.

With the state’s GOP and Democratic Party fractured, the race could draw 20-some candidates.

Because Kansas has no runoffs, a Republican could win the nomination in a crowded primary with only a dedicated base of supporters. And Kobach’s critics worry about independent and third-party candidates improving his chances of winning in November with less than a majority.

Kobach’s biggest GOP challenger is Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who has been waiting to take over as governor since Trump nominated Brownback in July to be ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. But Colyer faces the challenge of separating himself from an unpopular administration.

Some Republicans tout former state Rep. Mark Hutton, the founder of a Wichita construction company and critic of Brownback tax policies.

Many of the rivals are attractive to voters unhappy with Brownback, like Jim Ruble, a Salina banker and Republican who argues that Kansas needs “pragmatism” and sees Kobach as too “ultra-conservative.”

The problem, Ruble says, is the front-runner’s political skills: “The guy’s good.”

Democrats’ leading candidates are former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, former state Agriculture Secretary Joshua Svaty and Kansas House Minority Leader Jim Ward.

Many Democrats expect Kobach to be the GOP nominee and see him as the ideal foil after recent Democratic victories in the Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races.

Brent Lockee, a Kansas City-area data scientist, called Kobach “not someone I trust.” But he acknowledged that Kobach’s status “gives him a pretty good chance of winning.”

Democrats are split over how liberal their nominee must be on issues such as abortion to energize the party’s base, and consultants and activists are waging a fierce and increasingly bitter feud over internal leadership disputes.

So for now, the race tilts Kobach’s way.

“He definitely has a path to victory, and it definitely has to do with the numbers rather than necessarily what most people want,” said state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a moderate Kansas City-area Republican. “It’s exactly how we ended up with Trump.”