TOPEKA, Kan. – Kansas voters have said no to Kris Kobach twice over the past four years. But he is nonetheless betting that this can be the year he makes a political comeback.
His losses, including a 2018 defeat that handed the governor's office in this Republican-leaning state to a Democrat, might end other political careers. But Kobach, who built a national reputation as an immigration hard-liner while Kansas secretary of state, is now aiming for the state attorney general's office.
He faces two Republican opponents who lack his star power. If he wins the Aug. 2 primary, an anticipated GOP tide in November may be enough to lift even wobbly candidates.
So far, the primary race against state Sen. Kellie Warren and former federal prosecutor Tony Mattivi has been mostly about the candidates’ backgrounds, their personal styles and whether they have the courtroom chops to win lawsuits against President Joe Biden’s policies on issues such as guns, abortion and regulating businesses.
“I decided to run for attorney general the day that President Biden was sworn into office,” Kobach said in the candidates' most recent debate, having promised to set up a special unit focused on suing the federal government.
But Warren, Mattivi and their supporters want to make the race about electability, too — even if it seems as though any Democrat would be a weak match for any Republican, given inflation, gas prices and anger over COVID-19 restrictions. The Democrats are running first-time candidate Chris Mann, an attorney, former police officer and former local prosecutor.
“Why take a risk?” said Alan Cobb, president and CEO of the influential Kansas Chamber of Commerce, which has endorsed Warren in the attorney general's race. “There are exceptions to waves all the time."
Kobach’s years of pushing tough immigration and voter ID policies, coupled with a brash persona, turned off independent and moderate GOP voters in the 2018 governor’s race. Prominent Republicans then tagged him as too risky a bet in 2020, and he lost the Senate primary by 14 percentage points to U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, who then won the general election.
Brittany Jones, policy director for Kansas Family Voice, called Kobach “a good man” who undoubtedly would side with the conservative group on issues. But the group endorsed Warren over Kobach.
“He has proven time and time again that he can’t win,” Jones said. Kobach also lost a congressional race in 2004.
Mattivi handled high-profile terrorism cases as a federal prosecutor and has endorsements from dozens of sheriffs and prosecutors, including the district attorney in the state’s most populous county. During the recent debate, he said, “Electability is absolutely an issue.”
But Kobach argued in the most recent debate that he showed he can defeat Democrats in statewide races by winning terms as secretary of state in 2010 and 2014. Republican state Sen. J.R. Claeys, a consultant for Kobach, said the coming “big red wave” washes away any lingering questions about Kobach’s electability.
On primary day, Kansans will vote on adding anti-abortion language to the state Constitution, and Kobach argues the measure’s supporters are most likely to vote for him. But Warren was visible in the legislative push to get it on the ballot.
In Kobach's first race for secretary of state in 2010, he was better known than his two opponents, thanks to his national profile as a law professor who had ghostwritten tough state and local immigration rules outside Kansas. That November, he unseated a Democratic incumbent appointed to the state's top elections office only months before.
In his second term, Kobach's star kept rising. He was the earliest prominent Kansas supporter of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, advised Trump on immigration issues, served as vice chair of a short-lived Trump commission on election fraud and was mentioned as a possible Cabinet appointee. He was a regular Fox News Channel guest and a Breitbart columnist.
Kobach argued in the recent debate that his 2018 bid for governor fell victim to a national midterm “bloodbath” for the GOP.
In Kansas that year, Democrat Sharice Davids ousted a four-term incumbent Republican in a Kansas City-area congressional district, and Gov. Laura Kelly was among seven new Democratic governors who replaced Republicans. Democrats won back a U.S. House majority.
But Kelly Arnold, the state GOP chair at the time, contends that Kobach's 2018 fundraising was lackluster. In the attorney general's race, Kobach lent his campaign $200,000 last year, which was nearly half of the $425,000 he raised.
Arnold also argues that Kobach's candidacy energized the Democratic political base.
"The one thing that could unify Democrats to come out and vote is Kobach,” Arnold said.
Some Kobach critics still talk about the Jeep lent to him by a supporter in 2018 with a replica machine gun on back. Mandi Hunter, a 46-year-old moderate Republican and Kansas City-area real estate attorney, mentioned it in describing Kobach as “incredibly divisive.”
Kobach rode the Jeep in parades and mocked what he called the resulting “snowflake meltdown.”
“Kobach has chutzpah — extreme self-confidence through all situations,” said Bob Beatty, a Washburn University political scientist. “Many GOP primary voters love that, unless, like in the Senate race, he faces a well-financed opponent who can inform them about his negatives.”
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and James Dobson, the evangelical author, broadcaster and Focus on the Family founder, have endorsed Kobach, as has former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, described by Kobach as a mentor.
GOP voters also might sense that the attorney general's office suits Kobach better than the other offices he's sought. Kris Van Meteren, head of a Republican consulting and direct mail firm in the Kansas City area, said Kobach's campaigns for secretary of state had a “law and order” tone by emphasizing election fraud as an issue.
And, with GOP voters looking for someone to aggressively challenge the Biden administration, Kobach is better known than the other candidates for "being a fighter,” Van Meteren added.
“He’s got the most-established reputation of being somebody who’s willing to take on the left,” Van Meteren said.
Leonard Hall, a 69-year-old Kansas City-area attorney, said he hasn’t decided which candidate to support but thinks Kobach’s past losses are “a nonissue.”
“I don’t look at him in the past tense,” Hall said after the recent debate. “The mere fact Kobach lost, I don’t think that can be held against him.”
Associated Press writer Heather Hollingsworth in Overland Park, Kan., contributed to this report.
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